Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Dry January - think about it! I will be doing it!

This is the bottle that Andrew at Dillies in Hexham sold me before Christmas - it was delicious! 

However, I am gearing up for a completely teetotal month in January; this would be my first such break since the enforced 2 month break when I was ill in April 2011. 

When I was a jockey I hardly ever drank, as all alcohol is full of calories. As Doctor Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative GP and MP for Totnes, is always saying - "Don't drink your calories!" However, if you are going to have a drink, once again try and buy local rather than at a supermarket or online, otherwise shops like Andrews, or their competition, Bin 21, in Hexham's Market Square, will go out of business.

You - as the consumer - are in charge of your own high street, your own shopping opportunities. Please support your local pubs and small independent shops.  As for me I will miss a pint of bitter more than anything, but I will do all I can to give my liver a break!

Monday, 30 December 2013

2013 in review - September, October, November + December

Locally in September I did everything from the Macmillan coffee morning in Heddon, to the Sill project launch, to the great Scottish campaign week, designed to ensure that Scotland stays part of the UK. 

I spoke at events all over - from Aberdeenshire to Loch Lomond to Tweeddale and beyond. It was a fascinating week and well worth the efforts. 

October saw us full on back in parliament but I still managed to get home to make the Tynedale Hospice at Home charity fundraiser at Hexham.

In November we made skills and apprenticeships our priority and I helped Michael Egger open his new engineering academy. You can read my keynote speech on skills and apprenticeships in the House of Commons here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/whall/?id=2013-11-27a.93.0&s=speaker%3A24962#g93.1

Also this winter we have spent huge amounts of time supporting our NHS - whether it is my two visits to Haltwhistle Hospital [middle picture, with Local Councillor Ian Hutchinson], portering in Hexham hospital [pictured below with Barry, the head porter]or spending a half day with the team at the Haltwhistle GP clinic, along with multiple other visits and meetings with our Ambulance Service, Commissioning Group, NHS Trust and all the key workers who make the NHS what it is today. I never forget I owe my life several times over to the NHS.

Will Labour ever lose their [Ed] Balls?

15 years as Gordon Brown's right hand man is a poor preparation for a future Chancellor. Ed Balls is the biggest single liability for the Labour party, and yet they refuse to sack him. He is the most unpopular part of Labour on the doorstep when I discuss with constituents about the country going bust, the Labour years, and the debts we are trying to pay off. He is stuck with his 15+ years of service to Gordon Brown, and his continued denial that anything pre 2010 was his fault. But have a look at him in the Commons now and you see a man struggling.

My take on it is this:
- Balls can’t talk about his record in government, because he presided over the biggest recession ever.
- He can’t talk about the deficit because he has no plan to deal with it. He favours more spending and borrowing.
- He can’t talk about infrastructure, because he was the person who tried to break the consensus on the biggest project of all, namely HS2.
- He can’t talk about housing because there were 420,000 fewer affordable homes at the end of the Labour government. Less homes built than since 1930's.
- He can’t talk about business rates, because they went up 71 per cent under Labour.
- He can’t talk about support for business because he wants to put more taxes on business, even though they create the jobs.
- He can’t ask about standing up to the powerful because he is funded by the trade unions.
- He can’t ask about jobs because he wants more jobs taxes. He predicts that tightening our belts and paying off our debts would make more people unemployed. In reality job numbers have gone up massively locally and nationally.
- And he can’t ask about banking and financial services because he was the City Minister who presided over the bust, and continues to block regional banking
To avoid all of this he learns the piano! I admire that, but ....Eventually Labour will realise that they cannot go into or ever hope to win an election with a liability like this? But that is their choice. Bizarre.

Sunday, 29 December 2013

Looking back at my 2013 predictions...

Well it's that time of year again. The time of year we look back at my predictions from last year and see how incredibly wrong I was! Let's see how it went this year...

"International politics: As Syria descends into civil war, the focus will shift to Iran and its nuclear intentions. World leaders will have to make very tough decisions on the middle east generally and Iran in particular. My one strong prediction is that Assad will not be the leader of Syria by the end of 2013. The end game for him is nigh."

- Half a mark here, I may have been wrong on Assad but Iran's nuclear intentions are certainly in the news, although with perhaps a more positive outlook that I had assumed. 

Big Local Issue 2013: I predict the issues around our green belt will dominate locally in 2013.

- I reckon I got this one right. The Council's Greenbelt plans have brought communities like Ponteland together in a bigger way than I have seen since I was selected more than 5 years ago.

International Democratic Day of the Year: the Falklands Referendum on March 10th 2013 - when the local people finally are able to make their feelings clear. I happily predict the islanders will vote to remain British.

- God love the Falklands, not only did  99.8% of islanders vote overwhelmingly to remain a British territory, (on a turnout of 92%) they also helped me get full marks on this prediction!

Local Democratic Day of the Year: May 2nd when Northumberland goes to the polls. I will put my neck on the block and make two predictions; 1) The Conservatives will have more seats that we have now 2) The Conservatives will win one or both of Hexham West and Haydon and Hadrian.

- Well the elections have come and gone. Firstly the Conservatives gained 4 new seats, taking us from  17 to 21. The best results for the Conservatives anywhere in the country. Locally we missed out on Haydon and Hadrian, but we did win Hexham West from the Lib Dems with Cllr Colin Cessford scoring a spectacular victory. 1 1/2 out of 2 for this one.

In the Arts: The Oscars are the only show in town in the spring so my strong prediction is Best Actor to Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln, with Les Miserables as Best Picture.

Argo took Best picture but luckily for me Daniel Day Lewis came up trumps with Best Actor. 1/2

A horse racing bet: Flemenstar is a good choice each way for the Gold Cup in Mid March but I particularly like Sea Bass each way to win the Grand National on April 6th

It was a win for Bobs Worth at the Gold Cup. Sea Bass came an unlucky 13th with winner Auroras Encore storming to victory in the Grand National. My reputation as the North East's premier horse racing tipster took a slight dive... 0/2

And finally...Sport: Not my finest predictions last year, but here it goes for 2013. Murray will win Wimbledon, England will win back to back Ashes series, Man United will win the League, and Rory McIlroy will win the Masters, only to be denied a grand slam by Ian Poulter who wins the Open.

Well, well, well, all I can say is - Come on Murray! England won the Series 3-0 in August - although I accept our form has slightly dipped since!  Manchester United won the 21st season of the Premier League which saw 1063 goals scored over 380 matches. Aussie Adam Scott won the 77th edition of the Masters with my predicted winner Mcllroy making it to just 25th place. Phil Mickelson won the 2013 Open in Muirfield Scotland despite a strong performance from my prediction Ian Poulter. Overall 3/5.
My predictions for 2014 will follow on New Years Day

2013 in review - June, July & August

In June we held our first local banking conference in Gateshead - a huge success as 160 delegates came to see how they could set up a local bank. Then in late June I was  asked to present he prizes at the Haltwhistle United junior football teams awards - a great celebration of huge team effort by so many, both young and older, in Halty.
My favourite visit was to Acomb Court to meet the residents there and meet their resident pony. You will not believe this blog post! Ponies on patrol in care homes.... See here:

Late June we welcomed Theresa May to the north, for a dinner in Brampton, and we welcomed Next to hexham, as our campaigns against the green belt took shape both in Ponteland and in parliament.

On Saturday 6th July we had our Hexham clean up day, which was a huge success. I also opened the Matfen fair, and gave the prizes at Mowden School.
On the 11th. July I was pleased to welcome David Laws, the schools Minister to Hexham to meet the. Local heads and start our campaign to get a rebuild or improvement of Hexham QEHS.

I spent most of the rest of July / August in Northumberland as the house was not sitting for 4 weeks, which gave me the opportunity to go to many of the local businesses, fairs, and events that normally I miss out on. I also had the chance to hike some of Isaac's Tea Tea trail and play cricket for Allendale, when we beat wylam, but no thanks to my brief 3 run innings!
August saw the early return of parliament to debate the Syria crisis. I spoke in the commons, arguing strongly for a two stage approach. At the end of August we received the news that Haltwhistle Middle School had been granted its academy status.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

France right now is what a Labour government would be like - unemployment rising, no deficit reduction plan

"Business confidence is falling. Unemployment has risen to 10.9%, a 16-year high. Only months after escaping one recession, the nation is on the brink of another. Time to adopt Labour's plan B? No, because this is France – plan B is already in place, and the bad economic news is its grisly fruit.
At one time, it seemed as if the British left would never stop talking about a grand economic alternative to austerity. There was even a march for the alternative - though none of its proponents were very specific about exactly how the alternative would work. The most you could get out of them was this: austerity would be stopped; the rich would be made to pay far higher taxes; the deficit could look after itself, or else it would be magically paid off by a plan-B boom."
Full details about why The Two Eds have no economic credibility is set out in more detail here in  the guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/dec/18/labour-plan-b-france-economic-disaster-ed-balls-austerity

If you want more spending, more borrowing and no turnaround of the British economy then do vote Labour. The reality is that you will end up with a scenario that is just like France, which is failing to confront the problem that it continues to spend more than it earns. This leads to greater unemployment, no growth, a relapse into further recession and no action on the deficit.

2013 in Review - March April + May

In March I ruined a good shirt in a great cause at the Whistle Stop Art Project in Haltwhistle. Alison and her team do a great job for the local community. Also the Falkland Island Referendum came good - a great result that I debated in the House of Commons. The full debate from March 12 is here:  http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-03-12b.277.0&s=%28falkland+islands%29+speaker%3A24962#g277.2
This period of time featured the Local Elections. I am pleased to say that we did really well in Ponteland and Tynedale, after a huge effort by so many supporters, friends and activists from 15 to 85. My thanks to everyone who stood, or supported us. Sadly it was not enough to take the Council - which is now controlled by the Labour Party with support from independents.
Over the spring we did a lot of fundraising for the National Brain Appeal, the charity that supports the NHS hospital I was in when I was cured. The surgeon who saved my life, Neil Kitchen, came in to the house and I handed over the cheque, that arises out of royalties from the book, Doing Time, and a charity quiz I held. I appeared at the Hexham Literary Festival, which was great fun but very nervous making! I held many meetings but probably the most important one was with the If campaigners: you can read my specific blog on this issue here:   http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2013/03/the-if-campaign-and-issue-of.html
Finally my favourite visit of the year was by the three young women from Hexham Middle School, and their maths teacher. They came to meet Liz Truss, the education minister, after they transformed maths teaching by their input.

Friday, 27 December 2013

2013 Year in Review: January and February

January got off to a snowy start which saw us campaigning ankle deep in the snow for the coming Local Elections. It was also the month I raised the prospect of us having to have Border Controls if Scotland goes independent and our support for the opening of Gilsland station came another step closer to reality. January was also when I lost a great friend and inspiration in Dr Alan Reece. It also saw myself and hundreds of locals pack into Snods Edge Village Hall to discuss the Whittonstall Opencast proposals, an issue that will rumble on into next year. Reform to Constituency boundaries was defeated 334 - 292. Labour's scare stories on University admission were undermined when it was revealed UCAS applications from those from disadvantaged backgrounds has also risen to the highest ever on record at 19.5%.
Picture: Campaigning all year round - in all weathers in Hexham!!

We started off February with a visit from Skills Minister Mathew Hancock to our Apprenticeship Summit, which I organised at Kirkley Hall. February was also the month I voted for the Same Sex Marriage Bill. On the 8th February Anne Marie Trevellyan was selected as the Conservative candidate for Berwick upon Tweed at the 2015 General Election; since then the incumbent Sir Alan Beith has announced his retirement. February, as well as seeing the "Horse Meat Scandal", saw me raise the prospect of new form of local governance for Tynedale. We brought Tyneside Blonde (a beer) to Westminster, brewed by our very own Martin and the team at the Hadrian Brewery.  I was also part of the campaign to protect greenbelt land just off Piper Road in Ovingham, an issue which would come to dominate the year locally. I made one of my many visits to Albermarle Barracks; at the same time the Guardian urged it's readers to move to Hexham, describing it as "cute as a puppy's nose and handsome as Clark Gable." The Lib Dem's held Eastleigh and I ended the month holding a public meeting for residents facing difficulties with their housing provider in Haydon Bridge.
The picture below is of the Skills summit at Kirkley Hall - with the Minister, one of our winners, and her boss!

Thursday, 26 December 2013

2013 Year in Review: Video

It wouldn't be this time of year if we didn't have a cheesy video to take a quick look back on what we've achieved throughout the year. So by absolutely no popular demand whatsoever here it is:


Wednesday, 25 December 2013

Perfect Christmas Viewing: catch up on Tales from Northumberland


Advice to your 14 year old self? Christmas is about family + more but I love these wise words

The Spectator Magazine asked many famous people to write advice to their 14 year old self. I find these collection of wise words very moving and share them on this day, when we celebrate family, God and others love, and look both back to the past and on to the future.
Appropriately we start with our Archbishop:

Justin Welby - Archbishop of Canterbury
Dear Justin,
You are rarely good at anything, a fact you know well and worry about. But don’t worry — it does not measure who you are. Keep on dreaming of great things, but learn to live in the present, so that you take steps to accomplish them. Above all, more important than anything, don’t wait until you are older to find out about Jesus Christ and his love for you. He is not just a name at Chapel, but a person you can know. Christmas is not a fairy story, but the compelling opening of the greatest drama in history, with you as one of millions of players. Life will often be tough, but you will find more love than you can imagine now. With my love to you, Justin

Rory Bremner - Impressionist

Life is full of opportunities and possibilities, but take the time to look around you and take in everything that is around you. The people. The buildings. The landscape. The changing seasons. Talk to your dad about his life: he’ll be gone in four years, and much of his story will die with him. When the time comes that you want to know where you came from, he won’t be around to ask.

And don’t try and do everything at once. On second thoughts, do. You’ll never have this much energy again. Keep taking those piano lessons, and stop cheating by copying the teacher instead of reading the notes.

Kirstie Allsopp - Television presenter

I have lots of advice for you, but I’ll try to only give that which you are likely to take or believe. You are competitive, hugely so. Embrace this now while you are still able to channel it into doing well academically. The world is far bigger than you think and the life your parents lead is a good one. But it is not a blueprint for your life, so don’t waste too much time trying to emulate it. Your mother is right about a lot of stuff but by no means everything. Children are not the be all and end all; it will happen in good time. Have patience and don’t wreck your twenties trying to find a father for your children. Never cut your hair short. Follow your instincts about drugs, you’re on the right track. If he doesn’t call, forget him. And one day you will have every pair of expensive shoes you have ever desired.

Griff Rhys Jones - Comedian and actor

Do 14-year-olds want advice, let alone take it? Only a few casual maxims remain from my teenage years. ‘Don’t sit on radiators, they give you piles.’ ‘Always step in the middle of a boat.’ ‘Lime green trousers don’t suit you.’ I probably still follow them all. I might throw in ‘sugar makes you fat’ and ‘you will grow out of nearly every belief you have now, so don’t base your life on it’. All else was ‘instruction’ and I ignored it.

My main advice to me should be ‘become a lawyer’. Lawyers are universally convinced they are doing the only worthwhile job in the world. They are self-satisfied, assured of their own intellectual detachment, morally patrician and wealthy. All qualities indicative of middle-aged happiness. Mind you, quite a few of them are bored. But there will always be a downside. That’s a good maxim to remember.

Taki - columnist

My advice to my 14-year-old self would be to read more and play less. If I had paid more attention to my studies rather than trying to impress girls with dumb stunts, I would have written something of value by now. I cannot stress how important the right education is for a 14-year-old. But I wasn’t paying attention, despite the brilliant teachers I had. All I thought of was girls and to be captain of sports so I could impress them. Worse, I continue to do this today and have only arthritis to show for it.

Niall Ferguson - Historian

1. Never, ever drop maths.
2. Start supporting Arsenal now. Scottish football is doomed.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

10 Good news stories in 2013 - a must read article by Fraser Nelson


Who are the Westminster stars of 2014? My take on who did well in 2013 & the future

It is that time of year to do a political review and give predictions for 2013:

Labour: this year we said goodbye to some great Labour figures - whether it was John Healey confined to the backbenchers or Jim Murphy demoted. But my favourite line was when Jack Straw was being hailed, shortly after his retirement was announced for his long service, and he shot up to announce: "I am not dead yet!"
My congratulations for 2013, however, go to Paul Blomfield, for his campaign on pay day lending. He is both a friend of mine and a good MP, and he carried on what Stella Creasey started.
The common sense star of the year is an unlikely choice. Eric Joyce is a maverick, a delight to talk to but struggling with demons, notably drink. But he is also very wise, and very critical of political correctness, which definitely exists in spades in parts of the Labour Party. I liked this recent Spectator piece on him:

It is genuinely worth a read.
Clearly the rise of the very upper class Tristram Hunt proves the theory of the article wrong but...
My Labour MP to watch in 2014 in the Commons is Natascha Engel, the chair of the backbench business committee, and someone who is being talked about on all sides as the next Speaker, if she wants it. Unlike many MPs on all sides she does the job for all the right reasons, and is much liked.

Conservative: although Sajid Javid is clearly one to watch for the long term leadership, one new ministerial name stands out for me. The rising star of 2013, and a likely star of 2014, is Nicky Morgan, recently Promoted into the Treasury. Some people fit naturally into the job and she has really impressed in the Commons. My guess is that she will be promoted again, as the PM seeks to promote more women up the ministerial ladder.

As to the big guns. ... The cabinet will not stay the same all the way until the general election and there will be opportunities for other middle ranking ministers to get promoted. All of us in the parliamentary party admired in particular Alastair Burt, who was an outstanding minister at the foreign office; he should be given another job if at all possible.
If I had to pick one 2010 Conservative backbencher who should have been promoted, but was not, then I would select the outstanding Paul Uppal, MP for Wolverhampton SW. He is a mate of mine, but he typifies the new Conservative party of 2010 and beyond. Bear in mind he represents the seat of Enoch Powell ... and he is an ethnic son of a migrant: his wiki site is here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Uppal

Liberal: their best backbencher is definitely Duncan Hames, but my star of the year is Jeremy Browne. In effect, his predicament defines so much of what ails the Lib Dems. I worked with him at the Home Office, and although Norman Baker has been an excellent and entirely reliable replacement, Jeremy was sacked by Clegg for no reason at all. What the liberals do next almost defines which way the liberal democrat party will go? They have an upcoming Deputy Leadership election and it will decide their direction of travel. Do they go left wing, and try to become even more left wing than the Labour Party? If so then there are plenty of options like Sarah Teather or Tessa Munt they could choose. Or do they advocate liberal beliefs in a modern orange book world of fiscal discipline and pragmatism. If so they should choose an orange book liberal like Jeremy. I fear that they will go left wing. Given the electoral projections for 2015 that has very significant consequences for this country.

Merry Christmas

I have sent my card - created by the Hexham Rotary - to nearly 1000 people across the North East and received many in  return. However, I smiled at the cat card that the cartoonist Matt did for Number 11 Downing Street - featuring an upset cat - not sure if it is Larry or Freya.

I wish you all a Merry Christmas and good luck for the New Year.

Monday, 23 December 2013

Christmas Travel Advice

Be very careful travelling by road over the next 48 hours. I have just recieved the attached update from East Coast Mainline, who are being very helpful given the difficulties with train travel at the moment, which is good:
Christmas travel advice

Travel today and tomorrow, 23 and 24 December
Passengers are urged to check before setting out as weather is worsening on the East Coast route.
Ticket restrictions have been lifted for the rest of today and tomorrow to help people get home and to onward destinations for Christmas.
As a precautionary measure, Network Rail, which is responsible for the track and other infrastructure of the railway, has imposed speed restrictions on the line, with services currently restricted to 50 mph south of Peterborough.
East Coast is now operating a reduced timetable of four trains per hour from London King’s Cross, having maintained the published timetable until 16.00 today.

Services on 27 December
The East Coast Main Line will be closed between Grantham and Huntingdon on Friday 27 December with a rail replacement coach service in operation for all journeys between Huntingdon and Grantham.
Journey times will be significantly extended as Network Rail will close the route from 25 to 27 December inclusively as it carries out upgrade work at Peterborough as part of a £43 million investment in improving train services at this important rail hub.

East Coast has been advising passengers to defer travel to an alternative day where possible. Additional services will be operating on Saturday 28 December to help cater for additional demand and provide extra travel opportunities.

Services between 28 December - 1 January 2014
The usual ticket restrictions will continue to be lifted until 1 January inclusive. This means that all time restrictions on Off-Peak, Super Off-Peak and Off-Peak Day tickets will be lifted on East Coast services.

Back in Westminster

The London office is open till Christmas but closed Xmas day and Boxing Day. I will be in and out of the office between Christmas and new year and if matters are urgent over the holidays please email in or contact your local councillor. Today I am in Westminster all day trying to clear my desk, and then briefly in the home office.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Christmas presents: buy a book for Xmas - preferably from Cogito Books!

Aside from home made jam I will be giving books for Christmas! My thanks to Clare and the team at Hexham's only independent bookshop for solving my Christmas present buying problem in a 20 minute mad scramble on Friday evening. If you buy only one book this Christmas try and buy a Paul Torday book in memory of the upper North Tyne's foremost writer, who sadly passed away last week. He was universally respected both in Tynedale and beyond. If you do not believe me then read the review of the Guardian, who could not have been more complimentary:

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Weekend Read: Food Banks

All too often the debate about food banks descends into party politics and point scoring. Today I want to write about the actions of the many volunteers, businesses, churches and community organisations that are helping to provide food banks, especially in my part of Northumberland. I have met with many of the helpers, whether in the churches or Salvation Army, visited the food bank at Adapt in Burn Lane in Hexham, and taken time to try and understand the distribution network that we have in Tynedale to help those who are in difficulties.

Our food bank is a community led, charitable organisation but it could not exist without two things. Support from the public and support from business.

As someone who has waged war with the big supermarkets over everything from alcohol promotions to milk pricing I am happy to give credit where credit is due, and thank them for their work in supporting food banks. I welcome the role that the supermarkets are playing allowing people to donate inside the supermarkets, and the help and training they are offering volunteers.

The team from the Hexham Waitrose, who I have met at length when I went round the store last summer, have been especially helpful to the Hexham food bank.

Similarly, when I visited the Sainsburys in Haltwhistle recently in November I was struck by the slickness of the system that allows the public to drop items off in the store, which are then picked up daily by the Adapt bus driver, and transported back to the central depot in Hexham at the same time as Adapt are transporting people around Tynedale and making their local deliveries of food.

It also right I pay tribute to the role the Salvation Army play in both the food bank and helping those in need across the North East in a number of ways.

For the last two years I have worked closely with the Salvation Army in our Christmas toy appeal collecting gifts for children who might otherwise have not received a present on Christmas morning. The response this year has again been amazing and I must thank everyone locally who donated.

The Salvation Army is the unsung hero, with a worldwide membership of over 1.5 million, across 126 countries, running everything from charity shops, operating shelters for the homeless, and providing disaster relief, humanitarian aid and of course longstanding help with the provision of food banks. The Salvation Army have long provided their support for local people in difficulties in Tynedale and I cannot praise their work highly enough. I visited them recently as part of the institution that is the autumn church steeplechase. I waited to be called in the House this week but was told by the Speaker late on that I would be called so I was merely able to make an intervention. Much of what I have written here is the basis of my speech I would have given to the Commons.

The West Northumberland Food Bank:

• This was set up in April with a Co-ordinator appointed in July funded 7 and a 1/2hrs a week by the housing provider ISOS, who also pay rent of the room in Adapt. Again we must give praise to Keith and his team at Isos, who are proving wrong all those - including myself - who doubted they could provide as good a service locally as Milecastle Housing. This autumn, I opened the new ISOS new facility at Trinity Court in Corbridge, and they are doing a great job at providing social and supported housing in the area. I am doing everything possible to support their efforts to build locally.

• The Collection Points in the region are Waitrose and Tesco in Hexham, Sainsbury’s in Haltwhistle, and the Coop in Prudhoe and Bellingham. There is also collection / assistance in Prudhoe. Additional collection points are at all the local churches both in Hexham and the wider area and through the Salvation Army. There are too many church leaders of different faiths to praise here but my thanks to all of them.

Referrals come mainly from professionals such as health visitors, social workers, family support and churches. Packing takes place with volunteers from churches and other organisations. Each bag contains key basic foods but it also contains an A5 sheet with contact information for further help that may be needed.

The purpose of the form is to ensure that people making ongoing requests for food are being given other help which they might need whether it is a bed in StopGap or supported housing provision.

The Completed forms are sent to the Children’s Centre in Hexham.

Along with charitable individuals and business there is a third key to element which makes the project work. I want to take a moment to tell you a little about Adapt. Adapt began life in the North East in 1991 as a community group aiming to ‘improve the quality of life of disabled people’ by promoting better access to services.
The first priorities identified were difficulties in accessing buildings and a lack of accessible transport; therefore the first projects developed were an access group and a community transport project. Today Adapt's main work is providing accessible transport to people who are not able to use ordinary transport or where it is not available. This means that they can use space in the buses to deliver food bags to the local distribution centres.

I met recently with some of their team including Kat Halliday – Rowell, as part of a wider visit to the services provided at Adapt, including Healthwatch, and I cannot praise them enough for all the work they do, including facilitating the food bank scheme in West Northumberland.

There are many reasons for why people are using foodbanks:
- people in or out of work not having enough to live on, or struggling to budget
- long term debt issues
- delays in the changes in benefits; I have particularly urged DWP to address the delays in the system when benefits change, and we as a parliamentary team have assisted to ensure that people have help from the hardship funds.

I also want to address what we are trying to do to address the reasons behind people going to food banks. The reasons are many and a fair question is what we are doing locally.

On energy, I have created an energy booklet, about which we will blog more, and which is being distributed locally; in addition, we have championed the issue of fuel poverty locally and in parliament, with the creation of oil buying clubs and action on off grid. Now is not the time to go into the failed economics of an attempted price freeze that will actually raise prices for energy but our booklet is packed with specifics ways local people can reduce bills. As the oil buying groups will know we have been discussing with DWP Ministers for months the possibility of paying the winter fuel payment early to assist in the Buy Oil Early campaign. We are trying to persuade them to use Tynedale as a pilot, but the mechanics of changing the welfare / government payment system are hugely difficult.

On employment and pay the key issue is how we transform the jobs market. In Hexham and across most of the north east job levels are  much better. All 29 constituencies in the north east have seen an increase in apprenticeship starts since 2010, and locally in west Northumberland the apprenticeship increase was up 62% since 2010. In Hexham Egger recently opened a specialist local engineering academy.

I do believe that it is fundamentally through the provision of better skills and apprenticeships that we will improve the living standards of both our young and our elder people. We are also taking action to help ensure people pay a Living Wage locally and nationally.

I am pleased that the government has listened and chosen the North East to pilot the new advanced approach to skills development.

So many of the problems identified in the North East are addressed in the Adonis Report and I welcome that we are examining our strengths and weaknesses and trying to match the future skills, jobs and future prosperity in the region to the people we have in the north east. Out of these changes jobs and more growth will follow. If you have not read this groundbreaking study of the North East then do so; I contributed in part to it on a cross party apolitical basis.

On debt and finance, I welcome the action the government are taking on this and the extension of powers for credit unions.
- I certainly support the calls of Archbishop Justin Welby to compete the payday lenders out of business.
You can read my recent speech on pay day lenders here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-09-05b.506.0&s=%28high+cost+credit%29+speaker%3A24962#g535.0
- And am doing all I can to set up local banks in the North East to provide proper local lending, credit and finance, and have held several meetings with the team at Number 28 about how to address and help with debt, banking and credit. We are looking at ways forward on this. Regular readers will know that I am a massive fan of local banks, have held two banking summits to encourage new organsaitions into the market, and even met with the team both behind the Labour and Union run Salford Credit Union, led by the irrespressible Alex, and recently met Lord Glassman, the advisor to Ed Miliband on community banking.
I want to finish on one person who typifies the Tynedale sense of community, and care for those who are struggling. Last weekend, I particularly talked in Hexham with the wonderful Rosemary Theobalds, a lady who does so much for so many people in Tynedale, both with the food bank and generally. I am fairly certain she did not vote for me in 2010 but that is no bar to us working together, and she is not of my political view of centre right, low tax, community based, compassionate Conservatism, even though I am not a typical Conservative; indeed, she frequently writes to me and sometimes we disagree on policy decisions. But this blog is also an opportunity to thank unsung Community Heroes, and she is definitely one of those. I thank her particularly for all she does.

Friday, 20 December 2013

The Euro is a busted flush

As the USA and British economies begin to find growth, jobs, apprenticeships and exports expanding the Euro continues to flounder and hold back the European countries which are part of the Eurozone. I can promise all cosntituents I would never join it. Monetary Union does not work. It matters to us here in Northumberland as we want the European economies to do better and buy our goods.

The economist Jeremy Warner puts it well:
"Rarely has the economic gulf that separates the English-speaking world and continental Europe looked quite as wide as it does today. While much of the eurozone remains mired in an economic funk, Britain and America are recovering fast, with rising demand and near record levels of private-sector job creation.

As if the last, crisis-ridden three years haven’t already given Europe’s policy elite enough to think about, this juxtaposition in fortunes must surely have awoken them to the truth: monetary union isn’t working."
His full article is here:

Tynedale Business network, Royal Mail, surgeries and school visit today

V early start in Hexham at 7.30 with local small businesses meeting at the Hexham cafe Mrs Miggins this morning, talking about everything from the government help to small businesses, the freezing of fuel duty, and any questions they have to raise .... with the cafe's brilliant bacon butties on the side to get us going.
Then off to meet the team working at the local Royal Mail depot in Hexham before a trip to corbridge   Middle school at 10.15 to talk to the school and discuss the sky sports living for sport campaign. I will be trying to pop by Hexham hospital on the way back into town.

Then before lunch I have long booked in surgeries on the arch cru financial crisis with constituents who have lost money in a terrible financial scandal. We are doing all we can to help them both individually as a constituency MP, and collectively as part of the All Party Group in the House of Commons - which makes up dozens of cross party MPs. There are issues as to whether individuals who have lost money should sue the offending companies or whether they should take the collective agreement that has been negotiated. That is their choice and I will be discussing the options with them.
Afterwards, I have further surgeries on a number of issues. Pleased to say I have a night off Friday evening, but have a busy Saturday and Sunday across the constituency.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

You can watch my question to the Prime Minister yesterday here

Exactly 26 minutes in.

Get your flu jab! Don't risk your life for the lack of a 3 minute appointment

Last month I went to the Haltwhistle GP Clinic and met the staff and GPs there, spending an afternoon seeing the great work they do and the pressures they are under. It was well worth the time with Dr Mark Baker and the team; they look after the 5800 patients in their practice area which is based in Haltwhistle, but also extends from Low Row in the west to Haydon Bridge, and to Slaggyford in the south. Their surgery has recently been renovated. I sat in, and watched Mark perform a couple of minor surgery appointments in the clinic; I do not believe I have a future as a GP's assistant! Whilst there I also got my flu jab; I need the jab because I had my spleen perforated in a racing fall at Stratford nearly 10 years ago - I liked the horse so much that I tried to catch it as it fell on top of me at the second last fence at Stratford races; it hurt, and my spleen was taken out by a great surgeon called Mike Stellakis, at Warwick General Hospital. As a result I am immuno compromised.

The clinic is welcoming and professional and a far cry from the old leaking building or the portakabins they endured for 5 months during the rebuild. Mark made the strong point that medical recruitment is becoming increasingly difficult, with a real difficulty in filling rural medical vacancies.
I have taken this up with the DOH, alonmg with the point that Mark made that concerning retraining; the problem is that where a GP has not worked for two or more years, they must spend six months in compulsory retraining before they are permitted to rejoin the Performers’ List, and pass an exam costing £700 before they will be considered for retraining, and funding for posts is variable. This - according to Mark - has the effect of deterring any doctor who has worked abroad from returning, and is a large obstacle for women GPs returning from maternity leave.

Overall I was deeply impressed by the professionalism, extent of services and the quality of care in this GPs practice that was clearly very motivated by the importance to their local community of a strong Primary Care Service.

One final point: it is a scandal that some people who are entitled to a free flu jab are failing to take up the jab, which could save their life. Please make sure you ask your elderly relatives or those like me who are in an at risk group to get the jab. Some people will die or get very sick this winter because of the lack of this and it is totally wrong, and totally avoidable. The jab is free and available at all GPs. Not only is this a potential tragedy, but if people get sick through failing to have the flu jab they can occupy much needed hospital beds with everything that this entails for both the hospital and the wider community.
I had my jab done in less than 3 minutes by Sarah. It does not hurt [much!] and will save your life!! Please make sure you check your parents, relatives and neighbours have done the same thing.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Church is right - pay day lenders and the banks themselves need sorting

Really pleased to see the recent advert by the Church of England launched yesterday morning, but as the Spectator reports the problems are twofold, and include the banks and their approach. I have lost count of the number of complaints from constituents I have received at the approach of the banks; I have also endured an interesting time myself with a high street lender, who have behaved terribly, and have now apologised unreservedly.  It took some time to sort for me, but many constoituents would really have struggled.
I am pleased to say that I am meeting my credit union tomorrow in Hexham, and a church leader, to talk about this exact problem of high cost credit, the extension of credit unions and the need for more local action on this issue.

Countryside Alliance awards - Northumberland leads the way

Great news that so many of our local shops and businesses are recognised in the awards; I have been to several of the established providers like the outstanding Blagdon Farm Shop [truly amazing sausages / bacon on sale there], but have not yet visited the nominated Bardon Mill Village Store and Tea Room. The other nominees are:
• North Acomb Farm Shop, Stocksfield
• Blagdon Farm Shop, Seaton Burn
• Zen Baker,
• Wyld Fire,

The regional finals of the competition will be announced in March 2014, before going forward to compete against winners from Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the other English regions in the final. We will be celebrating the success of all winners at a reception at the House of Lords on 30 April 2014, where the overall winners of the competition will be announced. I look forward to welcoming the winners to the House of Lords in April

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Seven Stories celebrated at the Camelot House of Commons launch

Today I was delighted to welcome Kate Edwards and her colleague Alison to the House of Commons, when they attended the National Lottery event promoted by Camelot. Seven Stories is a national lottery success story: http://www.sevenstories.org.uk/ and is the National Centre for Children’s Books. They select original artwork and manuscripts - from first scribbles to finished work - to make our exhibitions, events and learning programmes. As they make clear: their seventh year exceeded all expectations, including todays trip to the Commons. Seven Stories is a registered charity and relies upon grants and voluntary donations. Please check out their website. I am holding the wonderful book, "The Tiger who came to Tea", which the ladies brought down to explain their point. They are a fundraising and literacy success that is an excellent use of public and other money. I will finish with the following quote from their website:
"Seven Stories is the only place in the UK dedicated to the art of children’s books, and one of just a few such places in the world. We welcome over 70,000 visitors a year and there is something to enjoy 360 days a year. Everything we do inspires children and grownups to choose, share, read and enjoy the best children’s literature. We attract some of the biggest names in children’s literature to work with us to stage exhibitions and to take part in events."

Arch Cru - letter to constituents who lost money in this scandal

On Friday, I am having a further meeting with some of my constituents in the Hexham office who have lost money in the Arch Cru financial scandal. I have recently written to all those who have contacted me, over the last 3 years, but have decided to reproduce most of the letter here for completeness, both because I am secretary of the All Party Group for the recovery of funds in Arch Cru, and also to help other MP's / possible victims. For the avoidance of doubt it is my reluctant view - as an MP, and not as a lawyer / advisor - that my constituents do accept the Capita settlement:

Re: Arch Cru Investment Scheme
Further to my letter of the 17th September 2013, in which I promised to write to you following the meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arch Cru on October 9th, I can now provide an update on the work of the group and that of Hugh Aldous, Chairman of the Board of the Guernsey Cells SPL Private Finance. I apologise for the delay of this reply but I had to wait for the confirmation of a few facts. Unfortunately, as always in this saga, this took longer than anticipated.

The mediation process in Guernsey
As you will all be aware, the mediation process in Guernsey is ongoing. The APPG met in the House of Commons and spoke to the mediator, Bill Woods QC, in June, to try to get an understanding of his hopes and plans. Unfortunately, he was unable to divulge any specific details or indeed, any particular information regarding the parties involved or progress. However, we understand that the legal proceedings are ongoing.

The work of the Board in realising assets
You will see from the table below that along with the Capita offer, some of the total investment of the scheme has already been realised and some is still to be realised. The table shows that the current projection for return of investment is 55% of the entire scheme. Although this figure can change it does highlight the stark fact that full compensation is not going to happen.

From the statement of the Board Chairman, Hugh Aldous, it is clear that although some progress is being made in disposing of the assets of the Guernsey Cells, the rate of that has slowed. This indicates the less liquid nature. In addition, the majority of the remaining assets are illiquid and a solution is being considered for dealing with these in some equitable form. The APPG will press for options to be developed to allow for a form of trading to take place of the remaining assets, after all liquid holdings have been disposed of to maximise the investor return.

The table below shows how the portfolio of cells and assets has changed over the last year:
As of July 2013 (£m)
Net Investment  463
Funds realised thus far 133.5
Capita settlement 54
Remains to be realised 65
Total  257.5
Percentage of Original Investment 55

The other APPG officers and I met with Hugh Aldous in early October. Most of Hugh’s update to that meeting can be seen in his attached Chairman’s statement. To summarise as he saw it, the negative side of the process was that most of the proceedings are under strict confidentiality agreements, which makes our work hard and the ability to update investors even harder. However, the positives were that the mediation process continues and that no single party has yet withdrawn from the mediation process, which suggests that all parties realise they are at fault to differing degrees, have a case to answer, and will not get off scot free. Hugh told us that they all wish to settle in some form.

The Capita offer
I realise that the deadline for the offer of compensation from Capita is imminent and that you will be making a decision shortly - if you have not already. The recent main focus of the APPG has been on the negotiated settlement, involving all parties, in Guernsey. This is an ongoing and confidential process and the APPG is continuing to press for options to be developed and explored.
I cannot specifically advise you on whether to accept the Capita settlement, although you know my views that this is an offer you should accept. I say this not as an advisor, but as an observer, and your MP. Two things seem obvious: firstly, that the deadline will not be extended again and, secondly, that the parties will not make clear the basis of the agreement before the current December deadline.

The APPG will be meeting again in January and hope to have an update on any further progress before Christmas. I will write again with that update.
Yours ever,

Guy Opperman
MP for Hexham
NB: I should add that if there are any of my constituents who have not contacted me on this issue but wish to do so then they should not hesistate to call either office, although Charlie in the London office is the chief point of contact. My apologies but I am not allowed to help non constituents. They should contact their own MP.

Politicians + their favourite films - very funny & wise words from Dan Hodges

Very funny piece from Dan Hodges [himself the son of Glenda Jackson] on politicians and their favourite films. In the wake of the death of Peter O'Toole tributes have been coming in. Like the PM [read the article] I am a huge fan of Lawrence of Arabia: probably my favourite line is when Lawrence emerges from the desert and tells the disbelieving Sherif Ali "nothing is written". This is in response to the jibe that Lawrence should leave a man behind because:
"He is doomed, leave him- his destiny has been written."

As regular readers will recall at the time of the 2010 election all 4 candidates in Hexham were asked to name a favourite film, which was then shown at the Forum Cinema for one night only during the election. I chose then, and would again choose, The Shawshank Redemption. It dovetails with the book I have since written on prison reform - Doing Time.

It says all you need to know about the Blair family that, according to Hodges, apparently our former PM Tony Blair's favourite film was Jackie Chan's, Rush Hour. An intersting choice!

Monday, 16 December 2013

Should we change the law on the right to die? 9 Judges decide this week

My support for a change in the law is well known. Exceptionally the Supreme Court have convened a 9 Judge court [it usually sits with only 5] to decide 3 separate appeals in this most complex of legal and moral arguments. Noone is saying this is an easy issue, nor am I down playing the incredible work the local hospices do - whether they are Tynedale Hospice at Home, or Charlotte Straker in Corbridge. The three cases being reviewed are well summarised by the BBC here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-25363947
For me this argument comes down to 2 simple issues:
- why is this choice to take one's own life, in very specified and controlled circumstances, through the Digitas clinic in Switzerland, something that is available solely to the few? It is only possible to go down this route if you have money. That is the harsh reality. The normal person could not avail themselves of this option unless they had significant wealth. Noone who has gone down the Digitas route has been prosecuted by the DPP and rightly so.
- secondly, to whom does your life belong? I am a Christian, but within the confines of my Christian faith I still believe that a person should have the right to end their life in certain circumstances.
However, my strong suspicion is that the cases will be lost before the Supreme Court, not because the Judges are not sympathetic but because the law can only be changed with parliament's consent, and there is a reluctance for any of the political parties to address this issue, notwithstanding strong support amongst the backbenchers, including myself.

My views, and the opinions of the inspirational Geraldine McClelland, and her friends who are my constituents, are set out here: http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/hexham-mp-guy-opperman-backs-4413760

And the report of the debate on this issue in 2012 is here: http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/mp-guy-opperman-reveals-days-4413872

My speech in full during the very emotional and powerful day in the Commons last year is set out here: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2012-03-27a.1373.0&s=%28assisted+suicide%29+speaker%3A24962#g1433.0
The entire transcript features some of the best speeches I have ever heard in the Commons, notably by my labour friend and colleague Paul Blomfield, the MP for Sheffield Central. It is worth a read - the Commons at its best where genuine debate takes place.

Hexham Green Belt Protest gathers pace

Good report in the Journal here of the work that local residents, particularly in the west of Hexham, are doing to preserve their neighbouring green belt: http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-news/hexham-green-belt-plans-would-6408024

Westminster this week

I am only in the House 3 days this week before coming home for a packed 4 days up north. But there is much happening with the Care Bill and other legislation going through parliament. I have plenty of Home Office work, but my main constituency meeting is the meet with the company EE on Tuesday to discuss alternative phone and broadband providers in hard to reach areas like Hedley and Kielder. We are spending so much time trying to improve such provision, and looking at alternative providers who can provide local solutions. I know it is almost the number one issue for so many people.
My intention is to come home Thursday first thing and I have a multitude of meetings across Tynedale over the rest of the week.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Weekend Read: Labour's Greenbelt Miscalculation

Many regular readers will be aware I am fundamentally opposed to building on our greenbelt. Indeed I am Secretary of the cross party All Party Greenbelt Support Group in Parliament.

That is because I believe in the greenbelt. I believe in what it stands for

It is about protecting our environment. It is too easy just to think about the fields, woodlands and hedgerows around our towns and villages, as simply either development land or a nice view. These are living, breathing spaces. They are our green lungs.

I have long tried to be environmentally friendly and am a prominent member and supporter of the Green Alliance think tank, (infamously I remember riding my bike to my first hustings in the constituency, only to be trundled past by one of my parliamentary opponents in his personalized 4x4); the thought of losing large swathes of our wildlife, farm land, hedgerows and green space under tons of concrete and mortar is one I find deeply sad. We are the guardians of our beautiful land, and we must protect what green space we have. Yes, there must be sustainable long term growth, and I have written many times on the need for housing, but it is at our peril if we rush into building on the greenbelt simply because it is the cheapest or easiest option.

Which brings me to my specific opposition to
Labour's Draft Local Development Plan here in Northumberland.

Each County Council has been tasked with drawing together an up-to-date local plan, with identified sites to meet five years of housing need. The Government has
produced guidance but kept its conditions for these plans to a minimum, so that they can be truly locally led and locally decided. All very sensible in principle and many local Council's have already completed their well constructed plans. The debate I held in parliament pointed out that Manchester with its over 2 million people and many different boroughs, completed their plan from start to finish in under 18 months.

Then however we get to Northumberland.

Firstly the plan is late. Very late. We will be lucky if we meet the deadline for completion early next year. Which may be part of the explanation for my second problem with the plan: It's a bad one, a really bad one.

We know that based on historical trends that towns like Hexham will need to grow by about 4-5% over the coming years. Yet the County Council says it will grow by 10-12%. That's not a figure based on housing need. It's a figure quite literally plucked from thin air. There is seemingly no real evidence for this figure.

Regardless of your interpretation of the specific housing figures required, the County Council's population and housing estimates for places like Hexham and Ponteland are way out of kilter with what anyone else anywhere is projecting. They are not proposing building in the greenbelt because we need to - they are proposing building because they want to.
The Councils projections are based on what they call a "dwelling led scenario" as opposed to a "Trend scenario."
A trend scenario would have plotted a growth projection, and then allocated the number of houses we need, based on historical trends, data predictions and long term Office of National Statistics demographic indicators.
Instead, Northumberland County Council ignores all of those factors and works backwards, coming up with the number of houses it would like to build - then saying that is how much the area will grow by - if that number of houses are built. If your lost at this point I don't blame you, it is a logic Monty Python would be proud of.
The draft LDF, drawn up under the Lib Dems and signed off by Labour is not a sensible sustainable plan for housing growth. It is poorly worded, missing hugely significant statistical information and based on a hugely flawed premise. The draft Plan is open for
consultation until 2nd January 2014. I urge you to get involved and have your say - you can do so by clicking here. 

As always, if you support the plan then please write in and say so. I oppose it. If you do then you should also write in or take action as I am. But the key point is that you do have both a democratic opportunity and a chance to influence. It is worth pointing out that until the Localism Act, the new protections for green belt, and the change of government we would have been stuck with John Prescott and his regional spatial strategies. But as always I urge you to make your case, just as the teams of people behind the protection of Ponteland Green Belt and the Hexham Green Belt have done. 

If you want more info go here: 

Friday, 13 December 2013

Hexham's loss a huge gain for Dudley & the Black Country as Graham Usher becomes Bishop of Dudley

He becomes the youngest Bishop in the country.
I have many tales to tell of Graham's faith, kindness, drive and compassion. I have never talked at length with anyone who has been able to articulate as well his sense of Christian faith; he has been exceptionally helpful to me as a church leader in so many ways. Justin Welby is the only clergyman who has impressed me more than Graham Usher, which is high praise. It has been a great pleasure and a privilege to get to know Graham over these last 5 years and he will be sorely missed in Northumberland.

My abiding memory, however, is finding him at my bedside when in hospital after my operation in. 2011. We talked and prayed together in a small high dependency unit - surrounded by fellow patients,  many of whom were moved to tears by his presence and words. He has been a source of solace for many people in Northumberland at many times. I will miss his counsel and Christian guidance very much. But the people of Dudley and the Black Country are very lucky. I shall be there at the inauguration of Bishop Usher on March 25th. in St. Paul's Cathedral in London.

Here is how the local Dudley / Black Country paper has reported his appointment:

Many fun events in Tynedale this weekend - Shop Locally - its up to you!

Today: Spetchells Christmas Fayre 3-7pm in the Library Centre on Front Street in Prudhoe - many local gifts avalaibale from local businesses and community groups - shop local! There will be a choir from Prudhoe Castle first school, food and santa
Tomorrow: Hexham Christmas Market: this will be a massive 80+ stalls and again a great chance to do your shopping for Xmas locally.... don't go to the Metro Centre or Newcastle - shop locally, and stay for a coffee or browse Hexham's great shops and cafe's. Buy your Sunday Lunch at our great Local Butchers, buy a book from the two independent bookshops in Hexham and Corbridge, or find something fun in our quirky and interesting independent shops just on Market Street and Church Row like Gaia or Dillies or even Petals! I will leave you to discover what they all sell but all are great local shops run by great local traders and, trust me - these 3 [and their nearby shops] have something for everyone and anyone!

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Tynedale Diary this week

Age UK have kindly asked me to lunch in Corbridge today to discuss their brilliant work and the local care of sufferers of Dementia and other diseases, but I will be in Hexham first thing for meetings and a visit to the Hexham Railway Yard developement. This afternoon I will be having a private meeting at one of our local schools and then after further meetings will be at an event in Newcastle.

Tomorrow I am meeting the Ponteland Medical Group as part of our efforts to meet local GPs, and see the work they are doing [I will blog more on my recent visit to Haltwhistle GP clinic in the fullness of time]; I then have a public health meeting I have organised with local organsations concerned with minimum unit price and display of alcohol. I canot say more for the moment but I am pleased that Balance NE are coming along, as well as several key local representatives who have given up their time to discuss this public health issue and possible ways to address it. I have meetings with broadband and business providers in Ponteland tomorrow evening.

Saturday I am knocking on doors and campaigning locally, before hopefully meeting a mate at the match v Southampton.

Wednesday, 11 December 2013

Trains in the winter - please write in as to how the Tyne Valley Line is coping?

I am not expecting a return of Torchgate, which made the winter of 2011-12 a difficult time for many travellers on the Carlisle to Newcastle line; see my blogpost here:http://guyopperman.blogspot.co.uk/2012/01/torchgatethere-is-light-at-end-of.html

But, several readers and members of the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group have alerted by email myself, and Pete who does the casework in my small team, to possible problems as to the number of carriages / seats available on the morning train to Newcastle, and the evening return. It seems to have been missing a lot recently according to users of the 7.42 from Hexham and the 5.54 from Newcastle, who have written in. I have written to Northern Rail seeking answers. The interim reply I have received makes the point that the company does achieve its required targets 95% of the time. I cannot go further and comment on this without evidence, albeit the level of complaints and overcrowding has caused me to raise the point once again with the representatives of Northern Rail, seeking an urgent review of this situation. This situation will get worse particularly as Christmas approaches, with the inevitable problems of Christmas shoppers. If I wanted to see a silver lining it is the hope that any problems on the trains would make locals do their christmas shopping in the local shops of Tynedale! To be fair to Northern Rail they are good people doing the best they can, and they have come to Corbridge to meet with both myself and local rail users; but I would still like the evidence to put to them. I will update the blog when I know more.     

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Metal Theft fell 40% 2012-13 = good news for churches and public buildings

The new figures out recently show that the Coalition Government’s efforts to reduce metal theft are showing early signs of success. Metal theft fell every quarter over the last year – and by 40 per cent overall in 2012–13. This period coincides with tough new measures introduced by the Government to clamp down on the offence which causes distress and disruption to hard-working people.
This is a campaign that I have supported really strongly in the House and locally in Northumberland as there have been a number of genuine outrages, and a lot of inconveniece.

Last December the Government tightened the net around rogue sellers by:
• banning all scrap metal dealers from trading in cash;
• ending the practice of ‘no questions asked’ cash payments; and
• giving the police powers of entry to tackle illegal trading in metal yards.

On top of this, the Government established a National Metal Theft Taskforce to focus enforcement activity, and backed a new law introduced by Conservatives in Parliament which will:
• require scrap metal dealers to be licensed;
• allow councils to refuse or revoke licences if a dealer is deemed unsuitable; and
• give magistrates the power to issue rogue traders with fines of up to £5,000.

These powers under the Scrap Metal Act 2013 came into full effect on Sunday 1 December, and are bedding in well. Metal theft costs the economy around £220 million a year. This crime affects everyone – from the stealing of cables that delay your rail journey home to the shocking theft of war memorials.
This is sending a strong message to rogue dealers – you will be caught.

The stats are as follows:
In April–June 2012 there were 20,151 metal theft offences recorded by the police in England and Wales. In July–September 2012 there were 15,526. In October–December 2012 there were 13,596. In January–March 2013 there were 12,067 (Home Office, Metal theft, England and Wales, financial year ending March 2013).

Open Primaries are picking some great Conservative candidates

Open Primaries to select candidates are the way ahead: I have been involved, in a very small way with candidate selection and candidate help for parliamentary seats for the 2015 election. I know many of the candidates very well, some only by reputation: Nusrat Gahni is a charismatic Muslim lady with great intelligence, and a great track record before getting involved in politics; last Thursday, she persuaded an open primary in the leafy sussex seat of The Wealden to choose her; she will not let them down.
The nature of an open primary is that ANYONE who lives locally in that constituency can come along - whatever their political views or persuasions and select the candidate. This means that local councillors from all persuasions can come along and question the candidate.

Or take Mid Worcestershire: Nigel Huddlestone, the chosen candidate to take over from Peter Luff is a breath of fresh air: his mum works for Asda and his dad in a factory, while he was the first graduate from his state school to get to Oxford. Similar comments apply to down to earth long term local councillor Ranil Jayawardena, the deputy leader of Basingstoke Council, who was selected in North East Hampshire two weeks ago. Also this last weekend Lucy Fraser was chosen in South East Cambridgeshire, to take over from Sir Jim Paice, and the Sussex health worker and local councillor, Maria Caulfield, was chosen in Lewes. In Northumberland  Anne Marie Trevelyan was chosen at an open primary earlier this year to fight Berwick on Tweed against Sir Alan Beith. Anne Marie fought Sir Alan in 2010, dramatically cutting his majority. He has now decided he has had enough, and I believe AM's 8 year campaign to win the seat will be successful in 2015. 
Quite rightly the papers are applauding the fact that this process is happening in the Conservative Party.
It is a far cry from the Labour process - whether it be the shenanigans in Falkirk [where does one start / finish?], or hilarious epsiodes in the past like Jack Dromey [Harriet Harmans husband] who was the first man to be selected from a proposed all woman shortlist for a seat in Birmingham in 2010. More details here: http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/peteroborne/100249778/well-done-mr-cameron-open-primaries-are-here-to-stay/

Monday, 9 December 2013

Uk is hosting the Dementia Summit of the G8 countries this Wednesday

Full details of this Wednesdays event which aims to develop co-ordinated global action on dementia here:http://dementiachallenge.dh.gov.uk/category/g8-dementia-summit/
Whilst applauding the work being done nationally it is also right to highlight the great work being done in the Tynedale area. This is only some of the services available, but this was kindly provided by Rob Stewart of the Alzheimers Society.

Dementia Adviser
The Dementia Adviser Service provides information, advice and signposting to people worried about their memory, going through the process of getting a diagnosis and those recently diagnosed with dementia. The service is also available to families and carers of people with dementia. The service provides information and signposting relating to diagnosis, legal affairs, Power of Attorney, benefits, wills, assistive technology and services available in the area. It also involves liaison with multi-disciplinary agencies within the locality to raise awareness and promote further understanding and knowledge of dementia, significant developments and strategies.

Dementia Support Service
Following on from the Dementia Adviser the Dementia Support Worker offers ongoing personalised practical and emotional support and information for those living with dementia and/or for the families and carers of people with dementia. They support people to have a better understanding of the condition and its progression; maintain their independence; to enable people to talk through their concerns with someone who understands the condition; to offer coping strategies that will enable carers to adapt to the changing needs of the person they care for; to know what appropriate services are available to them as well as how to access them and to assist in accessing these services if requested.

Carers Support Group – monthly
This support group is an opportunity for carers of a person with dementia to meet together in a relaxed, friendly environment to discuss their caring role and its impact on them as individuals. The group aims to address dementia related issues as well as sharing coping strategies and providing emotional support and encouragement amongst peers. Personal experiences of health and social care services are shared, as well as signposting to these and other relevant services

Singing for the Brain – monthly
This lively, fun, stimulating activity is planned to incorporate social interaction, engagement and active participation for people in the early to moderate stages of dementia and their carers. The group is supported by volunteers and provides refreshments at no cost to the service user.

Dementia Café – monthly
There are 2 Dementia Café’s, one in Hexham and one in Ponteland. The cafes provide an opportunity for people with dementia, their carers, families and friends to socialise and to receive peer support from each other. Support and information is provided by the Dementia Support Worker and guest speakers will be invited to talk on topics of interest to the people attending. The emphasis is on information, support and to help people feel less isolated. The group is supported by volunteers and provides refreshments at no cost to the service user.

Northumberland Dark Sky is the largest in Europe and 1st in UK

If you have not been to Kielder then you have to go!
International Dark Skies Association has awarded Gold Tier Dark Sky Park status to 1500 sq km of Northumberland incorporating Northumberland National Park and Kielder Water & Forest Park.

The Northumberland Dark Sky Park is the largest in Europe and the first of its kind in England. It is also one of the largest in the World alongside Death Valley and Big Bend Dark Sky Parks in the USA. Gold tier designation is the highest accolade that the IDA can bestow.

This award is the result of two years of hard work by Northumberland National Park, Kielder Water & Forest Park Development Trust and the Kielder Observatory Astronomical Society in partnership with local communities, tourism businesses and people.

Although the Dark Sky Park doesn’t cover the whole of Northumberland, Visit Northumberland will be strongly promoting the ‘Dark Sky County’ and hope the benefits will be felt from the Cheviots to the Coast as more visitors come during the autumn and winter to experience our pristine starry skies and rural tranquillity, and to see the spectacular night-time tableau only Northumberland can offer.

Northumberland National Park has so much to offer: check out some of these links




Kielder Observatory
Find out about our new Landscape Discovery Centre at Hadrian's Wall

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Westminster this week

The Mandela tribute takes place tomorrow in the Commons at 2.30 - I shall be there.
Prison Reform and Literacy then dominate my week in Westminster: Monday sees an event with the Prisoner Learning Alliance (PLA) to launch its first year findings in Parliament. Given the rapid change within prisons and through-the-gate services under the Offender Rehabilitation Bill it is crucial to ensure that the role of learning is championed to reduce reoffending rates. It will be an opportunity to discuss the PLA’s first report ‘Smart Rehabilitation: learning how to get better outcomes’, with the keynote speech from Nick Hardwick, Chief Inspector of Prisons. I have written and spoken on this issue a lot – notably in my book, Doing Time.

Tuesday there is Treasury Questions, and a chance to debate Ed Balls proposals to borrow even more, and tax people more, followed by the debate on the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which helps businesses.

Wednesday is Prime Ministers Questions and in the afternoon I will be attending and then speaking very briefly at the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Literacy, who are publishing the final report from the Youth Literacy and Employability Commission. Most of Wednesday I will be involved in Home office business debates in Westminster Hall at 9.30, and then in committee at 1.30 on the Private Members Bill – the Citizenship (Armed Forces) Bill of my colleague Jonathan Lord.

Details of the Bill’s passage through the House of Commons can be found here:

Saturday, 7 December 2013

This is my favourite advert for Small Biz Saturday!!

Shop local! Make sure you support your local shops, butchers, grocers, bookshops, markets and shop local for Xmas gifts. This is from the team at Jaspers Dog Treats from Ovingham.

Red Squirrel Numbers on the up in Northumberland

I am a big supporter of the work that local volunteers, conservationists, landowners and the Forestry Commission are doing to work together to restore red squirrels to the woodlands around Hexham, Corbridge and Slaley in Northumberland. I have met with many of the teams and hope to see some of this good work in action at some stage in the new year.

This part of Northumberland was once home to thriving populations of red squirrels, but in the last decade, non-native grey squirrels have taken over - spreading the deadly squirrel pox virus and dramatically reducing red squirrel numbers. Immediate and wide-scale action is needed to protect the remaining red squirrels. Red Squirrels Northern England (RSNE) is now working with Stocksfield - based estate management company Land Factor to protect the precious red squirrels in the area.

With the support of local landowners, RSNE has secured £300,000 for the next five years, through the Forestry Commission’s English Woodland Grant Scheme, for red squirrel conservation in the Hexham area. This scheme has been assisting crucial red squirrel conservation efforts across northern England since 2007.

The amazing funding boost will contribute towards employing a full time Red Squirrel Ranger and seasonal contractors, to work across 3,000 hectares of woodland around the areas Hexham, Corbridge and Slaley.

Red Squirrel Northern England is already seeing the benefits of its conservation work in Slaley Forest, a woodland covering an area of approx. 14 sq. kilometres, 8 miles south of Hexham. Paul Greener, RSNE Red Squirrel Ranger, has been trapping grey squirrels in the Forestry Commission-owned woodlands since March 2013. In the first few months of his work, Paul counted himself very lucky if he ever saw a red squirrel in the Forest, however, now, after a concerted trapping effort, he sees red squirrels on his rounds every day which is such an achievement

Margaret Bates, leader of the volunteer Slaley Red Squirrel Group, has been delighted with the results so far, she says: “Slaley Red Squirrel Group find it very encouraging to have received a 50% increase in red squirrel sightings during 2013, compared to the last two years which I believe are down to a combination of kinder weather, landowner support and great relations between RSNE and its volunteers.”
So, with a New Year around the corner in a little over five weeks’ time, there is great hope that visitors to the woodlands around Hexham will once again be rewarded by the sight of the wonderful and endearing native red squirrel.

Anybody wanting to find out more about red squirrel conservation in Hexham and its surrounding woodlands should email Red Squirrel Officer Emma Wright at emma.wright@rsne.org.uk or telephone her on: 01661 844795

Friday, 6 December 2013

Parliamentary Tribute to Nelson Mandela on Monday

MPs will be given the chance to pay tribute to the great man in the House of Commons on Monday; there are also reports that a special event for 'remembrances, testimonials and dedications', for people from all across civic society, is being considered for Parliament.

Farewell Mandela - a truly great man

I urge you to go to South Africa and see the places that Mandela grew up in, and see the change his leadership has brought. A few years ago I went with a South African friend and drove around Mandela's homeland; I journeyed to the spot at Howick, where on 5 August 1962, police captured Mandela along with Cecil Williams, driving back from a political meeting in Pietermaritzburg. I went to the Plessislaer Arya Samai Manaye Hall in Imbali Township in Pietermaritzburg where the meeting was held that night. Both are mystical places. Kwa Zulu Natal is full of the past life of Mandela, and the British history from Rorkes Drift and so much more.

It was a very moving journey for me in 2009. I learnt a lot. I never met the great man but am of no doubt that Nelson Mandela was South Africa's Abraham Lincoln, their Gandhi, their Winston Churchill, and more.

The tributes have rightly been pouring in for the great man: last night the PM, David Cameron, who met him and I know was very moved by the meeting, said:
‘A great light has gone out in the world. Nelson Mandela was a towering figure in our time; a legend in life and now in death – a true global hero. Across the country he loved they will be mourning a man who was the embodiment of grace. Meeting him was one of the great honours of my life. My heart goes out to his family – and to all in South Africa and around the world whose lives were changed through his courage.’

Like many great leaders, Nelson Mandela had one shining hour that eclipsed everything else and made the world better. Mandela’s came in 1994 when, after a lifetime of hardship and persecution, he became the first democratic president of South Africa. His finest quality was his sense of calm and grace. It flowed like a healing balm over a fearful, angry and anxious land. It disarmed his most ferocious enemies and soothed his most vengeful allies. The great dread of civil war ended the moment he spoke to the nation. For all its problems, South Africa has complete political stability, and this we owe to Nelson Mandela. The struggle for democracy had been bloody and violent, mostly whilst Mandela, trained as a lawyer, was in prison. He spent 27 years in jail.

In February 1990, President F.W. de Klerk made his speech that essentially ended apartheid, unbanned the ANC and released Mandela. Mandela emerged from prison in 1990 at the age of 71, and began his progress to power. During his years in prison he had been turned into a legend. When he ruled he presided over a peaceful transition to democracy where nations of different colours and creeds live as one. That will be his true legacy.

Two great quotes to finish:
On Freedom:
"There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires."

On Courage:
"I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear."

Huge support for John Woodcock MP in parliament

I do not know John well although I have heard him speak well in the House of Commons. However, he has had the great courage to go public about his battle with depression. I admire him and the others who have led the way on this issue very much: last year my very good friend Charles Walker, MP and North East colleague Kevan Jones, MP, both publicly confessed to having suffered from depression. We need to take the stigma away from being public about what is a disease, which is treatable. A lot of people have suffered depression; I have helped family members who have suffered. I hope John's brave stance will change the public's view that we all have to be strong all of the time. His interview with Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight is very moving.