Wednesday, 31 July 2013

IDS: Reforming the Welfare State

The man in charge of fixing Britian's welfare state has written a very interesting article for the Guardian. It's worth a read, below or here at the Guardian

This government has embarked on one of the most aggressive programmes of welfare reform Britain has ever seen, and we already have a proud record of achievement. There is no doubt that changes to the welfare state are desperately needed. Our reforms will put an end to people being left on sickness benefits year after year; they will eradicate the trap that has left so many better off on benefits than in work; and they will ensure the benefits bill is sustainable over the longer term.
Questions have been raised about whether the dramatic pace of our reforms is too difficult to implement. But these doubts ignore my department's proven track record of delivering change and show a lack of ambition from the people raising them. Look at what has already been achieved.
We promised a benefit cap and it began, on time, in April in four London areas. It will be completely rolled out by September. We introduced the new personal independence payment as planned and on time. Automatic enrolment started last year, and now 1 million people have been registered into a workplace pension. People are using our Universal Jobmatch website for more than 5m job searches a day. Our Work Programme has launched and the industry tells us that so far 321,000 people have found a job through it.
I am proud of this record. But my main concern about the delivery of our reforms is that we bring them in safely. I have no desire to follow in the disastrous footsteps of the last Labour government and rush out changes to meet an artificial timetable, only to be forced to scramble to sort it out when it goes wrong.
Universal credit, which is the centrepiece of our reforms and will bring six benefits and tax credits into one, is following the same approach. We started it six months ahead of schedule, in April, in Greater Manchester and Cheshire. The first claims were taken in Ashton-under-Lyne jobcentre. We then expanded to Wigan jobcentre at the start of this month, and from Monday new claims will be taken in Warrington and Oldham. This approach allows us to forensically understand how everything is working, what might need to change, and what support people need to manage. I make no apology for it.
From October we start the national rollout of universal credit. Six new jobcentres will begin to administer new claims. At the same time, we will launch the elements of universal credit that will help bring about the cultural transformation of the new benefit. All jobseekers will sign on with a "claimant commitment" that spells out what they will have to do in order to get their benefit.
Universal credit is a fundamental change. I don't pretend otherwise. People who claim it will experience something very different from the current system and that's why I will ensure we have it right before it rolls out far and wide.
I find it nothing short of amusing that the opposition is now calling for universal credit to be delivered faster. While I welcome its support for this radical transformation – following its rejection of all our other reforms – I won't take lessons from a party that brought us tax credit chaos and oversaw the decay of the welfare system.
In opposition it has been the same old Labour party. It has opposed £83bn worth of welfare savings, voting against universal credit, voting against the benefit cap, all our much-needed welfare reforms. Even Labour's paymasters, Unite, overwhelmingly support the benefit cap; the union agrees with us that nobody should be able to earn more in benefits than the average family earns going out to work. But Labour opposes this principle. The welfare party is in a mess. They spent 13 years letting the rot set into the welfare state, and I am now busy putting things right.
I don't apologise for attempting to do what previous governments have shied away from, bringing in major changes to make the welfare state fair to both the people who use it and the taxpayers who pay for it. We have been ambitious and will continue to push ahead with these reforms, but we will do so in a safe and responsible way.

Bus Matters: Riding the 685 to Halty

Many of you will remember this story HERE about my campaign for a better bus service on the 685 route from Newcastle to Carlisle.
Since I raised the matter in House of Commons on the 27th June we have made some really good progress. We have got new buses on the route and improved reliability.
On Monday I took some time out to meet passengers who use the route and hear their opinions. I am pleased to report that they reported improved reliability, a preference for the newer buses, with better seating and a bus much improved on coping with the heat - as compared to what they previously had.

I also took the bus myself with Arriva North East MD Nick Knox to discuss the service.

Tuesday, 30 July 2013

Same Sex Marriage became law last week

The House of Lords have finished debating and the Queen has given royal assent. I strongly believe that the concerns that were legitimately expressed against this bill in draft have been addressed and the law is such that those who do not wish their church to be affected by this change will not be - eg the Church of England or the Catholic Church or the Muslim faith
At the same time those churches that wish to conduct such marriages - whether they be Quakers, Unitarian, or Jewish should now be able to move forward on that. I liked the phrase of Rabbi Julia Neuberger, who said before the Commons debate:
“It is precisely because marriage is such a uniquely important institution that we should ensure that all couples who want to get married can do so, regardless of their sexuality.”

Addressing the concerns raised:
Philosophical beliefs are protected by the Equality Act 2010. As the Minister Hugh Robertson MP said in the debate on 20th May, "philosophical beliefs are protected if they are genuinely held, and we are entirely confident that the belief that marriage should be only between a man and a woman meets those criteria 100%".

The "Public Sector Equality Duty" cannot be used against people or organisations that believe in "traditional" marriage. Discrimination is not allowed because of such a view. The Attorney General has given assurances that these protections are already in place.

The House of Commons and the House of Lords spent a great deal of time assessing this legislation, and amending and improving it as part of parliamentary scrutiny. I am satisfied with the exemptions in place for Churches and individuals who do not wish to be a part of same-sex marriages. Indeed the Churches of England and Wales agree with this analysis. 

The Church of England said that "the effect of what the Government has proposed is to leave decisions about the doctrine and practice of the Church of England with the Church of England". The Church in Wales has also said that "the Bill provides protection for the Church whilst still enabling it to make its own decision on same-sex marriage."

The full original debate is here:

I would make three further key personal points:

i). This country is on a journey, and it is a journey that can be traced back many years. A hundred years ago there were the suffragettes and no opportunity for women to have the vote. Only in 1922 were women entitled to be MPs. Fifty years ago we had the civil rights movement and in 1967 homosexuality was made legal for the first time. Approximately 10 years ago civil partnerships were made legal. The world and this country are on a journey of change. The law must change with it - and the House of Lords and the House of Commons have in 2013 agreed.

ii). For me, this is a matter of commitment. I have spent 20 years as a community activist, councillor, lawyer, and now MP seeing examples of the difficulties that occur when couples fail to commit and fail to bring up children in the right way. Yet when two people show a desire to commit in the most serious way possible, are we to deny them that opportunity merely because they are of the same sex? That cannot be right. We know that married couples are twice as likely to stay together as cohabiting couples.
For my part, I cannot conceive of a God who creates, allows and permits homosexuals but would then want us to deny them the right to seek marital fulfilment within a religious context.

iii). Some have insisted that same-sex marriage would undermine the institution of marriage. Does anyone feel that they would be less married because we had gay constituents or a gay colleague who would commit to their partner in that way? I am presently not married, and this job is a real barrier to finding a wife and settling down, as it requires me to live in 2 places etc etc. But when I do find a woman mad enough to want an ageing jockey / politician husband then the fact that gay friends and gay colleagues are also getting married would not stop me from doing so.

Flower Power!

Summer is here and Hexham is looking great! Together with Hexham Town Council and Hexham's local Conservative County Councillors we have been working hard to ensure there are new planters really brightening up the town. Local shops, volunteers and Hexham in Bloom have taken responsibility for their up keep and with the additional hanging baskets Hexham really is looking good!

A special thank you to Gail (who runs Petals below) and the team at Hexham in Bloom.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Arriva Bus Journey tomorrow afternoon

At 2.30 I will be at the Hexham bus station hoping the bus to Haltwhistle turns up on time as I have a surgery in Haltwhistle later that afternoon. This is all part of our efforts to get the local bus company Arriva to improve their service. I met with company reps after repeated complaints and I am pleased that we have a newer fleet and, I am hoping, a better attitude. However, I promised to ride this problem bus myself, so first day back in Northumberland now the House has risen I shall be on the Arriva bus seeing how prompt and improved it really is!

Filming on prison reform with BBC in Hexham Gaol tomorrow

The BBC's Chris Connell is interviewing me on all matters prisons tomorrow; the Hexham Gaol was built in June 1330, making it the oldest purpose-built prison in England.
We will be discussing my book, Doing Time, the changes we need in todays prisons, the difficulties of getting proper mentoring, the problems of repeat offenders, and the need for radical reform of our approach to prisons - without throwing out the good things that we do. In the evening I am also meeting representatives from the Oswin Project - a local who help give skills and training to former prisoners and help turn them around. A great cause.

Home in Northumberland

Long drive from London in my beat up car. Big day tomorrow. Sleep well tonight!

Saturday, 27 July 2013

In praise of the Northern Echo

I am a huge fan of Credit Unions. Credit unions are small non-profit financial organisations, run by thier members, for their community. They are a great alternative to pay day loan companies who all too often prey on the most vulnerable to turn a profit. 

One North East Newspaper, the Northern Echo has taken a big step to help its local credit unions. Editor Peter Barron explains HERE why his paper will be offering free advertising space to local credit unions. It is wonderful to see a business, in this case a newspaper, taking the initiative and really doing something positive and beneficial for the local community it serves.

Well done Peter and his team at the Echo.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Assorted Journos [and MPs] are to be found hiking Hadrians Wall this summer

The Telegraph journalist, Christopher Hope is presently walking Hadrians Wall at the moment for a good cause:
He described his first day today as follows:
"22miles. Exhausted. 62miles to go. Please sponsor me at to walk Hadrian's Wall"

If you see a tired journo on a good cause please stop and say hello, buy him a pint, or better still sponsor him. I have walked the Wall several times, notably in 2011 for Tynedale Hospice at Home. I have not got the heart to tell him that the big challenge is ahead on the long march from Humshaugh to Twice Brewed and on down to Greenhead.
But think of the tea rooms, pubs and the grub along the way and all will be well.
To help him on his way I will resubmit my guide to the local pubs and beer originally found in more detail here:

The key section is:
Where to eat:

If you want great pub food then I am a big fan of the Barrasford Arms,

Tony is a brilliant chef, and the pub also has great beer and a bar where you will discuss everything from sheep prices to current affairs and who won the big race of the day. Great people and a top dining pub.
The Feathers in Hedley, and La Bouchon in Hexham are both prize winning and the destinations for fine dining but if you want a great south Asian experience then two restaurants will prove it is not just country fare up north.
The Valley in Corbridge is the ultimate Railway lovers restaurant, producing great food in an old railway station:
Also very good is Hexham's Diwan E- Am:

You will need a tea shop on your travels:

My friends say I am on a mission to try every tea shop in Tynedale but the county is justifiably famous: on your Pennine Way travels do not forget to stop at the Greenhead Tea Room:

Alison makes great cakes and scones.

Corbridge has more tea shops that any other but my favourite is Tea and Tipple, where you can while away an afternoon - they do great Northumberland Scones, including the normal cheese scone but also Blue Cheese and Caramelised Onion Scones:
Their web site has a special "Sconage" section...

Beer: this is obviously essential. We have lots of brilliant brewers, but I have worked a lot with the Hadrian Border Brewery, who produce the deliciously summer ale which is Tyneside Blonde. But my favourite would be a pint of Golden Plover, made locally by the Allendale Brewery, and found in most of the pubs:

To my knowledge two of my MP colleagues are also intending to tramp the Wall this summer - they will get a warm welcome, great beer, sore feet and the views that rival Montana.

Have left Westminster office for a while

Door shut. Travelling north later this weekend. Packed weeks ahead up north

Lindisfarne Gospels are only here till September 30!!

Full details about how to visit here:
The Lindifarne Gospels is one of the world’s most precious books, dating from Anglo Saxon England
It is on loan from the British Library, and staged at Durham’s World Heritage Site in the Palace Green Library. It is on loan to Durham from the British Library until 30 September 2013.
I hope to visit before too long - but I urge locals to go. This book is both our history and a timeless record of an age over a thousand years ago.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Q2 GDP figures showing that the economy grew 0.6 per cent

A lot has been done to turn the economy around but we have a long way to go
We would be worse off under the two Eds, who got us into this mess with profligate spending and debt, and would want us to borrow more.

Good meeting in Westminster with Orange / EE re Bellingham phone problems

The mobile phone problems in Bellingham have been significant and I met with one of the companies chief officers this week in Westminster - he assured me that the problem with their mast has being fixed. We spoke for nearly an hour and I have conveyed to the company how upset so many locals are by the recent outage. I will be providing a full detailed written update to the Parish Council and the county councillor in the next few weeks.

Education is changing

Michael Gove is changing education with his reforms to education poliocy and practice that particularly feature academies and free schools, which allow headteachers and local schools to make radical improvement, away from the dead hand of local authority control. All this at a time when the Coalition have managed to protect the 4-16 years budget from the cuts that other departments have faced. The interesting question is what does Labour think of the reforms?
We know that the Liberals are absolutely committed. I and my Hexham headteachers recently met David Laws in Hexham QEHS, and were very impressed by his reforming zeal, his grasp and his commitment to change for the better for the pupil and the individual school.
Only yesterday this is what Michael Gove said about David Laws:
‘I think that it’s certainly the case that there’s a lot of momentum in the department for education at the moment for continued reform. One of the great things about having David Laws as a Liberal Democrat colleague is that he’s as enthusiastic as I am about seeing more academies and free schools established; like me wants to see the prestige of the teaching profession enhanced, including with some of the changes that we’re talking about today. He like me wants to say rather more about how we can improve school leadership even further in the autumn, and he like me wants to reform the funding system so it’s fairer overall. So there will be a lot more coming from us, right up until the election is called.

‘What I think will be the case is that rather than scorched earth, what we will have done is that we will have moved the ground of the education debate to such an extent that the next government I think will accept the basis of what we have done because as the Populus poll reinforces, it’s in line with what the public want."
Recently Stephen Twigg effectively accepted that free schools and academies are a force for good. The Labour party will have to make up its mind about performance-related pay and some of the other changes that are coming through the system.

Westminster this week

I am still in London even though the House has risen; the team and I spend the first week back trying to catch up on all the multiutude of tasks that we put off whilst the maelstrom of the Commons is whirling around us.
My apologies to anyone who has not had their letter replied to, and my hopes are clear that when I head north this weekend I will be able to meet up with everyone up north who during the termtime it is so difficult to spend time with.
I am spending time this week in the Home Office, training our Women to Win candidates, writing a couple of articles that are long overdue and discussing the publication Access all Areas that I wrote with David Skelton and others at Renewal.
We have also had the annual staff meeting when everyone sits down and does a performance review of each other - which, as usual, turned into a joyous criticism of me for occasionally being late and over committing, and having an untidy desk!

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

We need an investigation into Community Fund decision

This week I have called for an urgent investigation into the way a community fund in Tynedale was suspended. I am hopeful the fund will now be reinstated and that Tynedale's funding will be preserved after our campaign, but clearly the Council has questions to answer.

The decision was seemingly taken by a lone Councillor with no meeting of the Council Committee which administers the fund. Last week the Council issued a last minute suspension of the fund which sees over £100,000 granted to community groups across Northumberland each year. The background is this: the Community Chest is divided into three equal parts, one for the North of the County, one for the West and one for the South East. The County Council indicated it would not be seeking to reduce the overall monies in the Fund but instead cut the West's allocation in favour of the South East.

What has gone on here is beyond extraordinary. Seemingly, one Labour Councillor from the South East has decided, with no due process or consultation, to suspend the fund in order to hand more cash to the South East. That kind of decision making process has no place in a modern council. We need a full investigation to find out who was taking the decision,why they took them, and why they were allowed too.

What matters now is getting to the bottom of how this decision could be taken in such a shoddy way so that our area doesn't suffer again. We need answers and we need them now.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Greenbelt update: Taking concerns to the top

Last week I raised my concerns about the greenbelt with Planning Minister Nick Boles at the first meeting of a group of MPs we have set up to give the greenbelt a voice in Parliament. I am Secretary of the group.

It is clear the group is already helping to give the greenbelt a voice. We have now had our first meeting as a group and already we have been able to outline some of the issues directly to the Planning minister..

Our group is made up of MPs campaigning to protect our greenbelt. It is beyond doubt that leading the campaign to defend our precious greenbelt from developers, who are simply looking for a quick profit, is the right thing to do for the people I represent. We have now been able to expand that campaign to the heart of Government.

I have confidence that Tynedale and Ponteland's greenbelt will remain protected from developers. We have a very strong case here to ensure the County Council does not wipe away our greenbelt protection

Sunday, 21 July 2013

The battle for decent BT service in Hedley

One of Tynedale's smallest villages is making its voice heard loud and clear over poor internet and phone services. 

After receiving numerous complaints from local residents I recently wrote to everyone in the village asking them for their concerns about the service provided by BT. 

For many years, Hedley has suffered a very poor phone service. This is because Hedley is at the end of a long and old cable connection to the local exchange ‘cabinet’. As a result, residents have experienced problems with the quality of voice calls and slow broadband connections are now becoming a real problem.

Over 40 residents have responded to me with their concerns about the service and Mr Opperman hopes the firm will now be forced into action. 

I hope these efforts to produce a collective complaint will ensure BT listen to local people.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Crime is the lowest since records began

Crime is down to a record low. 
In fact crime is at the lowest since records began, with recorded crime down by 7% in the year ending March 2013. The Crime Survey for England and Wales also show the number of crimes has fallen, down 9% since a year ago.
Not only has crime fallen overall, there were reductions in nearly all the main categories of crime including violence.
Here in my patch Northumbria Police helped secure a further reduction in crime with 67,574 offences committed in 2012/13 compared with 75,266 the previous year – and almost half the figure of 2005/06 when there were 132,000 offences.
 That is a stunning achievement, and my thanks go to all of the police officers and support staff in these tough times who are really delivering for our communities. 

Thursday, 18 July 2013

A summer of British Sport - and a Brit to win the Open Golf at Muirfield?

Murray, the Lions, the cricket, Froome in France, and now the British Open - Surely it cannot get any better than a British win at Muirfield? My hopes are high for Rose and Donald but if Close House's pro Lee Westwood were to win that would be the most popular win of all. However, I believe a punt on a British win is a good bet!

Government opts out of over a hundred EU measures

This week saw a significant step in the improvement of our relationship with Europe as Theresa May, the Home Secretary, announced an opt out from multiple EU Criminal Justice measures - meaning our parliamanet has control not a European one. There have been many meetings and discussions to agree the way ahead and the Coalition have taken a good step forward on a united basis.
It means that the Commons did approve the all important opt out from the 133 measures. The wording on future opt ins allows Parliament to scrutinise draft proposals, offer advice, and in due course have a vote on any measures the government does wish to opt into. In the interim the the Select Committees will now get to work on whether some opt ins are desirable.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

International Development and Aid Minister will be in the North East before too long

I meet regularly with the If campaigners, Make Poverty History, the Jubilee Debt campaigners, Christian Aid and various local churches, all of whom I know would like to meet with the lady who has overall control of the international aid budget and countless decisions that have a major impact on the poorer countries in this world, and many others as well.

I have spoken to the Justine Greening, the International Development Minister, as to when she will be visiting the North East and to be fair her diary is a nightmare as she is rarely in this country, let alone able to travel around Britain but I prompted her diary secretary and the Minister herself with a recent written question that I set out below. My suspicion is that she will be with us in Newcastle in the spring at the latest. When she does come I will make sure everyone knows well in advance, and the session will deliberately be an open Q & A.
The Hansard source for everything I do is set out on the They work for you website or on the parliament website, but for the record the reply is 16/7/13:

Overseas Aid: North East

Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
To ask the Secretary of State for International Development when she next intends to visit the North East of England to update churches, aid groups and interested parties on the coordination of UK humanitarian and aid support to key developing countries.
Photo of Justine Greening

Although my plans for travel within the 
UK during the coming year have not yet been confirmed, I am keen to meet directly with faith-based communities and NGOs across the country, including in the North East of England.

Syria - the problem spills over to other countries but parliament will decide

Reports of Turkish deaths by reason of the Syrian civil war continue - as reported by the BBC below:
I have been asked by many constituents as to both my and the government position on arming the rebels and I can only repeat my assurance that
- I would oppose any arming of the rebels
- No decision has been taken by the PM or Foreign Secretary
- Parliament would be recalled and a vote would be required before anything happened
- Such a vote is a free vote, without any government line or pressure in any way
- My strong belief is that parliament would not vote to arm the rebels in Syria

All Party Group on Green Belt - pleased to be made Secretary of the parliamentary group

Went to my first meeting in the House of Commons two days ago, along with members of the the Campaign to Protect Rural England and Civic Voice and other concerned organisations and several MPs.
Locally we believe that we have the ability to provide the development we need on brownfield sites before allowing any green belt development. I constantly point to the excellent developments at the former Hospital sites at Stannington and Prudhoe and the upcoming development of the old police site in Ponteland.
I have supported all 3 wholeheartedly. The key is to have the right development in the right place with the right make up of the housing mix. More details of the meeting and a fuller report on what we are doing on housing to follow in the next week or so when I can catch my breath.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

Pont News and Views

Had a good meeting today with Brandon Lewis the Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government. The government is rightly stopping Local Authorities from producing taxpayer funded reports detailing how wonderful the Council is. However, there were concerns expressed by several Ponteland Residents, councillors and concerned organisations that this would affect magazines like the much loved Pont News and Views. I took the civil servants and officials through copies of the magazine. It is a community information sheet, which is free to the community, and which is clearly non partisan. This months excellent edition describes, amongst many local issues the brilliant party in the park, showcases the St Mary's festival, and 2 charity efforts locally, activities by the council, multiple letters, a report by the local police and a short whats on section.
I am pleased to report that it was accepted that the regulations do not apply to local parish magazines like this. A formal letter to the Council and those who have written to me will follow shortly.

Renewal launches today - proud to have written for this brilliant pamphlet
I wrote the chapter at page 66, but would recommend all the pamphlet for bold and innovative thinking as to how we transform this great country.
The Pamphlet has got great coverage - it is edited by Consett born, David Skelton. Did the launch yesterday with Eric Pickles, and today with Laura Sandys, MP, Paul Uppal MP, and Rob Halfon, MP in the House of Commons.

Update: I was pleased to see one reader comment - see below in comments section - that this pamphlet is:
"a surprisingly good read!"
It is fair to say that the authors are almost all 2010 intake of Conservative MPs, who like myself are still very small fish in a big pond, notwithstanding that we might hold very junior roles in government - I for example am a junior Parliamanetary Private Secretary at the Home Office. The pamphlet is all about trying to sketch out policies for 2015 and beyond and to road test ideas both in print and speeches.
But you will hear lots more of the likes of Paul Uppal, the wonderful MP for Wolverhampton: Paul makes the point that the citizens of Wolverhampton elected him, a young lad from an ethnic minority, who grew up in a 2 up and 2 down in Wolverhampton, to a seat which was once represented by guess who ...? Enoch Powell, author or Rivers of Blood
This country has come a long way since the 1960s has it not?

OFT urged to have a British investigation into oil price fixing

I was in an official meeting yesterday morning so I could not join my colleagues led by Rob Halfon, MP, who went to the Office of Fair Trading to lead a protest group alongside Quentin Wilson, FairfuelUK and the Independent Fuel Retailers Association, to present a petition with over 30,000 signatures, calling for a proper British-led investigation into oil price fixing. Regulators in Europe and America are now actively investigating oil price manipulation, yet it is a struggle to persuade the independent OFT to conduct an investigation here.

The Labour Guide to Policy Making

This did make me smile - albeit it is very close to the truth - see the Labour party approach to welfare reforms, for example

Monday, 15 July 2013

Is the NHS a National Health Service or an International Health Service?

Health Tourism is a small but significant part of the problem with the NHS. The Colaition are presently consulting on proposals to legislate and change the administrative arrangements governing the rights of visitors, recently arrived people and illegal migrants to health care on the NHS.

The government believes that there should still be an entitlement to free emergency care if a visitor, recent migrant or an illegal migrant is caught in a bad accident or develops a serious condition that needs rapid treatment. The issue to be settled are what entitlement if any do these categories of people have to the rest of NHS care, after they have received their emerrgency treatment.

If someone comes to work or stay here for a longer time period on a legal visa they currently can register with a GP for free primary care. If a visitor needs GP care during a shorter visit they too can currently onbtain free care from a GP. A visitor is not meant to receive free hospital treatment for anything other than an emergency whilst staying here. They can obtain health insurance or pay cash for any treatment they do want in a UK hospital, or wait until they return home.
The government has suggested charging other new arrivals £200 as an initial payment or contribution to NHS costs, to be followed by a continuation of current practice of free treatment thereafter.
Is this a sufficient levy and a fair approach, covering people like students and short term workers coming to the UK with a visa? Should temporary residents qualify for free GP care? Should hospitals have to take more care over charging people from overseas receiving treatment? How far should we go to ensure that we are running a National Health Service, rather than a World Health Service?

My colleague and good friend Philip Lee is both a GP and a 2010 new MP like me. He raised the following Q and A at a recent Prime Ministers Questions:
Phillip Lee (Bracknell, Conservative)
As a doctor who once had to listen incredulously to a patient explain, via a translator, that she only discovered she was nine months’ pregnant on arrival at terminal 3 at Heathrow, I was pleased to hear the statement from the Secretary of State for Health today on health tourism. Does the Prime Minister agree that although the savings are modest, the principle matters? The health service should be national, not international.
Hansard source (Citation: HC Deb, 3 July 2013, c919)
David Cameron (Prime Minister; Witney, Conservative)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. This is a national health service, not an international health service. British families pay about £5,000 a year in taxes for our NHS. It is right to ensure that those people who do not have a right to use our NHS are properly charged for it.

The Benefit Cap Launches today

Rewarding work infographic 14 july 2013

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Save Our Community Chest

Pressure is mounting over Labour's awful decision to suspend the fund and reviewing Tynedale and Ponteland's (West Area) allocation. It has indicated it would not be seeking to reduce the overall monies in the County Fund - but instead cut the West's allocation in favour of the South East.

The current funding arrangement is part of a long standing cross party agreement which has saw the fund divided equally across all areas of the County.

What Labour seem to be proposing to do is an absolutely outrage move. It is sad that they are looking to cut funding in the West to shift extra funds to the South East, but to hit our voluntary and community groups in this political way is beyond shameful. 

Labour did really badly in Tynedale at May's elections, winning just 2 seats out of 17. Just after the election I challenged Labour to ensure that Tynedale would still gets its fair share of resources for the Labour run council. At the time new council leader Cllr Grant Davey said "It’s about the needs of the people, and, yes, Tynedale will get its share."

It seems it was deliberate that Cllr Davey missed out the word fair.

The story was covered in the Journal this week (see HERE), and on the front page of the Hexham Courant this week.

Appearing on BBC Radio Newcastle Monday morning at 8.03am

I will be discussing the Benefit cap on Newcastle Radio first thing. We need to be fair - to the person working at Egger and Tesco, fair in the ongoing support for those who need it and fair in our work to get the short and long term unemployed back to work. I think the benefit cap is a good thing - for the first time a government has grasped the nettle and capped benefit. Bear in mind it the cap is £26,000 a year for a couple. Disability Living Allowance, Personal Independence Payment and the employment support allowance do not feature and will not be affected by this cap. We are specifically protecting those who cannot work, and those too ill to work, whilst making sure that work pays.  

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Love Northumberland awards feature multiple local winners

Many congratulations to all my local winners: I am particularly pleased that Wylam Community Orchard Biodiversity Group won best new project - I have helped out in the Wylam orchard many times before and it is a great project. Full details here:

A Big Bus Victory!

Great news: as Arriva have taken a series of steps to address the failings of the 685 bus from Newcastle to Carlisle. My thanks to everyone who has written in and their patience whilst we wrote, campaigned, met with Arriva and raised the locals plight in the House of Commons on the 27th June.
The good news is that we are getting
- new buses
- greater reliability and service
- a change in the approach of the bus company who have admitted their fault and are giving some help to those who they let down
- regular assessments of how they are doing
And yours truly taking a random number of bus rides on the 685 over the summer to check it out. I will keep you posted on my report.

Happy Birthday Malala - as she stuns the UN aged 16!

Yesterday the amazing Malala made clear she would not be silenced by the Taliban. She spoke of her determination to overcome the Taliban violence:
“Let us pick up our books and pens,” said the Pakistani teenager, who was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman as she left school last October. "They are our most powerful weapons. One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution.” Full story and video here:

Friday, 12 July 2013

Fairer Funding for Northumberland's Schools

Yesterday we launched our 'Fairer Funding for Northumberland School's' campaign with a visit from Schools Minister David Laws.
Inequalities in the system currently mean that for decades Northumberland—and some other local authorities—have lost out. Despite the Pupil Premium, which has increased funding to Northumberland’s schools, the difference as to what local authorities get to spend, can be well beyond a thousand pounds per pupil. Northumberland is pretty much at the bottom of the list.

Our campaign believes that funding distribution can only be fair at school level if all pupils in the country have access to a basic minimum entitlement of funding to deliver them a high quality education. We believe all children in Northumberland deserve a fairer funding system which no longer penalises our schools. We will be working to ensure the new formula means children in Northumberland have the best opportunity to fulfill their educational potential.

You can read a full report on our new campaign in today's Journal HERE

The Coalition Government has now announced it is to change the current system and launch an official consultation on the future of the national funding formula. Our campaign is to make sure Northumberland's voice is heard loud and clear.
I am pleased to chair the campaign, but to ensure our communities have their voices heard a number of local champions have been signed up to lead the fight in their area:

County Co-ordinator: Cllr Peter Jackson Leader of Northumberland Conservatives
North Northumberland Chairman - Anne Marie Trevelyan
Anne-Marie is a well known campaigner in North Northumberland. Anne-Marie is also a publicly elected governor of Northumbria Healthcare Trust and a governor at Berwick Academy.
South East Northumberland Chairman - Cllr Wayne Daley
Wayne is a Northumberland County Councillor representing Cramlington. Wayne is also Deputy Chair of Governors at St Benet Biscop High School and has two school aged children.
West Northumberland Chairman - Cllr Cath Homer
Cllr Cath Homer is a newly-elected County Councillor representing Hexham. Cath has three school children and is leading the campaign for capital improvements to QEHS

Peter, Anne-Marie, Wayne and Cath joined me yesterday to help start making our case to the Minister.

Regional Banking debate

This week in the House of Commons we have debated Regional Banks and the changes brought about by the Coalition Government. On Monday we had a heated debate on the proposed changes and then on Tuesday I was able to make a short contribution to the Third Reading of the Financial Services (Banking Reform) Bill: The Speaker cut me short but I remain convinced that we shall soon see local and regional banks springing up in the North East.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Schools Minister visits Hexham

A busy, but very positive day today. For a long time Hexham's County Councillors, the Town Council and I have been making the case for investment in QEHS in Hexham and fairer funding for our local schools. Today that campaign went to the very top when Schools Minister David Laws accepted my invitation to visit the school for himself. A full report on the visit later in the week!

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Labour cuts off funding to Tynedale's voluntary groups

I am afraid I write this blog post in both anger and sadness. The new Labour run County Council has paid much lip service to fairness - but one of their first acts has shown a real disregard for our community.

Northumberland County Council has issued a last minute suspension of the West Area Community Chest fund which sees over £100,000 granted to community groups across Tynedale each year.

The Community Chest is divided into three equal parts, one for the North of the County, one for the West and one for the South East, each with £100,000 to support voluntary and community groups in that area.

The County Council has now suspended the fund and said it will be reviewing the West's allocation. It has indicated it would not be seeking to reduce the overall monies in the County Fund - but instead cut the West's allocation in favour of the South East.

Justifying the move the County Council said  "50% of the County's residents live in the bottom South East corner but only get 1/3 of the fund" and claimed this represented an "imbalance in funding."

The current funding arrangement is part of a long standing cross party agreement which has saw the fund divided equally across all areas of the County.

What Labour seem to be proposing is absolutely scandalous move. It is shameful that they are looking to cut community funding in the West to shift extra funds to the South East, an area which already receives extra funding as it is. Places like Prudhoe, Hexham and Hlatwhistle are really going to lose out if they get their way.

The decision has came as shock to the voluntary sector with 21 applications, totalling some £54,000 already waiting to be processed by the fund. Those applications are now stuck in limbo.

I will be writing to the Leader of the Council Grant Davey to express my disgust at this arbitrary move. Voluntary groups and the wonderful work they do should not be used as some political tool to prop up labour voting areas in the South East. 

This funding was agreed in the pre election budget and never once did Labour hint to the residents of Tynedale they were looking to cut our funding prior to the elections. It is underhand and quite frankly an abuse of residents trust. 

I will fight this one all the way. 

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Don't forget: Prudhoe Resident Survey

As your local MP,  I am always keen to hear what local people have to say. Last week I launched my Residents Survey for Prudhoe - if you haven't filled it in yet please do, it is only 10 questions so shouldn't take long. 

Closing date for survey returns is the end of July 2013. If you have any particular comments you would like to make in addition to the survey then please email them through to  

All the data collected will go towards making a list of priorities for me to campaign for on behalf of Prudhoe.

If you would rather complete a paper version of the survey then one should have dropped through your door,  if you haven't got one then please just contact me.

Monday, 8 July 2013

New National Curriculum

The Government has today launched a new rigorous, engaging and tough national curriculum for schools.
Key skills have been brought forward and a new range of demanding tasks introduced to really ensure our pupils are able to get ahead, especially when it comes to computing.
In ICT for example word processing will be replaced by allowing children to create and test computer programs they write themselves.
In design and technology children as young as seven will be introduced to computer aided design techniques and the world of 3D printing.
In you have ever seen a child with an iPhone or an iPad you will be only to aware how advanced our kids have become - and how important it is we make sure they have the chance to push their skills.
Under the new curriculum, children will also be taught about the very important issue of internet safety at a much younger age, and how to keep thier personal details private online.
Education Secretary Micheal Gove said: "This curriculum is a foundation for learning the vital advanced skills that universities and businesses desperately need – skills such as essay-writing, problem-solving, mathematical modelling and computer programming."

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Murray the magnificent!

What a stunning win for Andy Murray. I think the entire UK was on the edge of their seats! 
Murray is now the first British man in 77 years to be Men's Wimbledon champion after beating Djokovic in 3 straight sets. A truly remarkable sporting achievement.
The 26yr old is the first British player to lift the men’s singles trophy since Fred Perry in 1936 after winning the three sets 6-4, 7-5 and 6-4. 
It has inspired me to pick up my own tennis racket - I'm sure Murray will be worried! 

Abu Qatada has finally been deported

The Home Secretary Theresa May said:
"Abu Qatada was deported today to his home country of Jordan to face terrorism charges.
His departure marks the conclusion of efforts to remove him since 2001 and I believe this will be welcomed by the British public.
I am glad that this government’s determination to see him on a plane has been vindicated and that we have at last achieved what previous governments, Parliament and the British public have long called for. This dangerous man has now been removed from our shores to face the courts in his own country.
I am also clear that we need to make sense of our human rights laws and remove the many layers of appeals available to foreign nationals we want to deport. We are taking steps – including through the new Immigration Bill – to put this right."

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Hexham Community Clean Up: Great Success!

What a fantastic day! A huge thank you to everyone who came out and joined us for our clean up of the town centre today. Over 50 people turned up - great community spirit!

EU Referendum: Labour says No

Yesterday I voted FOR an In/Out Referendum on our membership of the EU.

 304 MP's backed the bill put forward by Conservative MP for Stockton South James Wharton. Pretty much every Conservative MP supported the vote and to their personal credit as did 6 Labour MPs: Roger Godsiff (Birmingham, Hall Green), Kate Hoey (Vauxhall), Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North), Dennis Skinner (Bolsover), Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton), and Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston).

The bill passed and will now go to the next stage.

Sadly every single one of the Labour MPs here in the North East followed Ed Miliband's instructions and refused to give people a say on the EU.

Europe and the EU has transformed over the last few decades. Our relationship with Europe needs to change as well and the people should be given a say.

I do not want this country to be part of some kind of European superstate and want to see more sovereignty returned to Britain. For too long decisions about our seemingly ever closer political union with Europe have been taken purely by politicians and civil servants in London and Brussels.

I am very disappointed my Labour colleagues in the region failed to put their faith in the people and back the referendum. 

It is nearly 40 years since voters across the North East, and the UK, last had their say on our relationship with Europe. Many have never had the chance, I was nine years old at the last referendum in 1975! The time has come for people to be allowed to vote on this important matter. 

Labour MP's up and down the region will now have to explain to their voters why they either voted against or couldn't be bother to give the people their say.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Guest Post: Free parking for Northumberland

Guest Post by Cllr Peter Jackson, leader of Northumberland Conservatives - the official opposition to Labour on Northumberland County Council. You can follow Peter on twitter @cllrpjackson 

A key commitment from Northumberland Conservatives in the recent County Council elections was for free car parking for all residents of Northumberland and a fair system to be introduced across the County. This pledge had the support of the Chambers of Trade in our market towns and we welcomed the new Labour administration's willingness to adopt the conservative idea of free parking.
However we are concerned that the process that the Council has started for the introduction of free car parking is complex and risks failing. The Chambers of Trade and Town Councillors are telling us that there are strings attached to offer of free car parking from County Hall and that it is clear that there will not be a fair and equitable treatment of all areas of the County. We could be facing a situation in which there is no consistent free parking policy across the county. 
There should be no delay in bringing in a simple "time disc" system which is used in many other parts of the country. The need is for a county wide "time disc" to be introduced without any further delay. Congestion and the availability of parking spaces should be controlled by the strict policing of the time periods that apply to each particular car park. A thorough review of these time periods in each town has just recently taken place and these time periods can be monitored for their effectiveness once free parking comes in. The parking studies have been done and there is no need to duplicate this work.  
The case for free car parking has been there for years. Not only is the current system unfair, as there is charging in some towns whilst towns such as Blyth and Ashington get off scot free and so this is a form of double taxation on rural communities. But also studies such as the Mary Portas review have shown that charging for car parking is one of the factors which is contributing to the decline of our high streets.
While Labour are right to follow the lead that we have taken, they need to stop delaying and to start delivering. There is a suspicion that they could well be rowing back on their promises. The residents and businesses of Hexham, as well as Berwick, Alnwick and Morpeth have been waiting too long for a fair deal. 

Happy 65th Birthday to the NHS

Today we celebrate the 65th anniversary of the national health service.
Our NHS is a fantastic institution, one we should all be very proud off. 
Yes there are pressures, and yes there are things we need to improve, but there is so much to celebrate about our NHS. My family and I owe so much to the wonderful doctors and nurses, and all those behind the scenes, who are there when you really need them. I would not be here today if it wasn't for the NHS.
There are some who have said that David Cameron was wrong when he pledged to ring fence spending on the NHS. Well I am very proud of the decision of this Government to recognise that the NHS is so special - that we wouldn't cut the money going into the NHS, but that instead we would increase it.
Just look at some of the improvements made in the last couple of years. A record number of patients being treated, infection rates in hospitals at an all time low, mixed sex wards finally abolished, and new treatments saving lives that were unheard of just a few years a ago.
Happy 65th Birthday to our wonderful NHS!

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Prudhoe Survey 2013

As your local MP,  I am always keen to hear what local people have to say. Since my election I have regularly surveyed residents, and this year I am trying to do one for each individual town/area. 

Below is a short 10 question survey so you can let me know your views on the issues that are effecting Prudhoe.

Closing date for survey returns is the end of July 2013. If you have any particular comments you would like to make in addition to the survey then please email them through to  

All the data collected will go towards making a list of priorities for me to campaign for on behalf of Prudhoe.

If you would rather complete a paper version of the survey then one should drop through your door in the next few days, but if you don't get one then please just contact me.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Academies Row now settled

Northumberland County Council's punative approach to local schools will now be stopped: schools in Northumberland which were trying to become academies but were then effectively blocked because of pension concerns have won a victory after the Education Secretary agreed to change Government rules.

For several years schools wishing to break free of council control had been hit with rules forcing headteachers to pay excessive fees to the Council to have their staff covered by local government pension schemes. That money was taken directly from the funds used to pay for educational material, forcing heads across the county to think twice and threatening the success of the scheme.
But yesterday Michael Gove intervened, making it clear in a parliamentary statement that should any academy close down with pensions liabilities, the Government would step in and cover the losses.
I would expect several Northumberland schools which have been holding back from a move to academy status may now reconsider their options.

For example, the 20% surcharge saw Berwick Academy forced to take an extra £90,000 from money which should have gone on children’s education to pay the Council
Meadowdale Academy was also handed punishing pensions surcharges, with the Bedlington school losing £66,000 a year – money taken from teaching budgets.
Haltwhistle Middle School was among those said to have been prevented from converting as a result of the new fees it would face.
Now in a letter to me, Michael Gove has said the Government will underwrite the risk of an academy failing, removing any possible justification for the local authority to impose a surcharge.As I commented to the Journal:
“This announcement we have secured blows out of the water any justification they may have had for their financial block on academies."
Full report in todays Journal:

Hexham Clean Up Day

This Saturday at 9am we will be starting our Hexham Clean up - please come along. It will be many things - a litter pick, a sponge down, and an assessment of what needs fixing in Hexham. It is part of our urgent short term effort to boost the attractiveness of our wonderful home town and to try and do specific things in the short term to help the retailers. It fits in well with the Town Plan and the Neighbourhood Plan, which are longer term objectives. This clean up will be over the next week. It is all about trying to ensure every retailer and every townperson accepts that they have a role to play. We are all responsible for our actions. Shop local.

I shall be voting for an EU referendum on Friday. Why won't Labour let the People decide?

We have a referendum Bill in the House of Commons on Friday. I shall be voting for it. Labour oppose.
David Cameron’s gave a statement yesterday on the European council and we had a reply of sorts from Ed Miliband.
The PM commented on the reply by saying:
What I thought was interesting about Ed Miliband’s response was that we heard not a word about the referendum that we are going to discuss and debate on Friday. I think I know why. The right hon. Gentleman has said that he is not in favour of a referendum; the shadow Chancellor has said that it is pretty stupid not to have a referendum; his chief adviser has said that it is conceivable that they might have a referendum—mind you, his chief adviser thinks all sorts of things are conceivable. Now the Labour leader has a new approach, announced in The Sunday Times—that Labour is not going to talk about a referendum. I think I can sum up the right hon. Gentleman’s policy in three words: weak, weak, weak.’

The problem is that Labour could put the referendum in law. At present we do not have the votes in parliament to do this without support from Labour, or the Liberals. Friday will be an interesting day.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Who governs Labour?

The fistfight in Falkirk between Unite and Miliband shows clearly that Unite are the stronger.
That the unions are enjoying such success in stitching up the selection process for future MPs shows how weak Miliband is - he seems unable to do anything decisive.

Dan Hodges’ column suggests the weakness isn’t just in dealing with the unions but party colleagues too. I urge people to read this article on how certain unions and their placemen MPs are making very sure they take over Labour.

Overhaul of stop and search powers

Home Secretary, Theresa May, has rightly acted to address this issue that has long been a running sore in community relations. Evidence shows there are approximately 1.2 million stop and searches per year with asian people stopped and searched at twice the rate of white people and black people at seven times the rate. As one campaigner put it: "We don't need more police - we need smart police"

I was in the Commons when the boss said that it is "time to get stop and search right", as she launched a public consultation on the police powers in England and Wales.

About a million stops take place each year - but only 9% lead to an arrest. When the tactic was misused it wasted police time and undermined public confidence, Theresa May said, adding that no-one should be stopped "just on the basis of their skin colour".
Police gave backing to improvements that would not undermine public safety.
Announcing the six-week public consultation, Mrs May told MPs there were disparities in search-to-arrest ratios across England and Wales, with some being "far too low for comfort". She said she wanted the powers to be used fairly to build confidence in the police.
"I want to make sure that stop and search is used fairly and in everybody's interest. I want to see stop and search used only when it's needed. I want to see higher search-to-arrest ratios. I want to see better community engagement and I want to see more efficient recording practices across the country."
It takes on average 16 minutes to conduct a stop and search and process the details. That amounted to 312,000 hours each year and the equivalent of 145 full-time police officers, she said.
"At its best, stop and search is a vital power in the fight against crime. At its worst, it's a waste of police time and serves to undermine public confidence in the police," she said.
"We shouldn't rush to conclusions about those statistics, but everybody involved in policing has a duty to make sure that nobody is ever stopped just on the basis of their skin colour or ethnicity."

The decision was backed by the police: Steve Williams, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales which represents tens of thousands of officers, said: "Any decision to invoke stop-and-search powers must be justified and officers must be accountable for the decisions they make as part of their commitment to policing by consent. In our view this tool is essential - however if there are ways in which it can be further improved without a reduction in public safety, then we are keen to take part in the debate."

Monday, 1 July 2013

The week ahead in westminster - the Europe referendum vote on Friday dominates

The Finance Bill and the big European vote on Friday dovetail this week, with plenty in between. On monday we will be busy with home office matters and a late night, when voting will finish between 11-12. I hate late votes but they go with this job from time to time.
On tuesday I have Justice questions, with Chris Grayling, and am then making a presentation on regional banking to assorted think tanks and journalists at the 5pmevent organised by Jonathan Isaby and others. On wednesday I will be meeting arriva in the house and rasing bus problems. I have 2 appointments in Downing Street in the week and also hope to get into Defra questions on Thursday. Friday is the European vote for a referendum and then at 3.30 I will be sprinting for the train to make it in time for the big regional dinner we are having at st James park Friday night. I am not speaking but The Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, MP, will be. Looking forward to it.

The £5 and £10 note

Mini scandal rages over which woman should be placed on the upcoming £10 note.
Charles Darwin has got the boot from the £10 and Jane Austen, of Pride and Prejudice fame, is waiting in the wings.
Equally controversial is the forthcoming arrival of Winston Churchill on the £5.
I am pleased that the Bank of England have rejected the calls of some for Julie andrews but a suffragette in this particular year would have been a good call.