Monday, 31 March 2014

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

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


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

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

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

Full story and a picture of Thomas is here:

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

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

I have been working with many of the locals to try and make the case for retention of the walled garden and an assessmen of the site in general. This has involved meetings with key locals - the record of which is set out here, along with the key questions. My thanks to Robert Forsythe and all the team of enthusiasts for their efforts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Scotland independence and the impact on border controls and immigration policy

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 29 March 2014

On BBC Sunday Politics show at 11.30 Sunday morning

Channel 955 if you are not in the North East. Issues discussed are the living wage and the welfare cap.
Also, we are Debating Scottish Independence with an SNP MP. I have set out my views in the past on whether Scotland can keep the pound post independence:

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

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

Amazing story of Gateshead lady who hears for the first time

Friday, 28 March 2014

Torrential rain in Tynedale tonight but campaigning for sure tomorrow

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

Tynedale plans this weekend

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

Thursday, 27 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Living Wage Conference this Friday morning in Newcastle

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

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

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

If you want to read more, my detailed article on the subject, and an assessment of the pros and cons for a volontary Living Wage is in last summer's New Statesman here:

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

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

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 24 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 23 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Care Bill passes the Commons - its key measures outlined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 21 March 2014

North East Unemployment drops a further 8000 between November and January

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

Thursday, 20 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Todays Ukraine debate & my question to William Hague - echoes of 1938?

In parliament today we debated Ukraine, amnd sought assurances from the Foreign Secretary that three key things were happening:
- we are doing everything diplomatically to resolve this
- that we are applying more pressure on Russia both to deescalate the situation and discourage it from doing more damage
- and generally seek answers both as to the Russian position, the consequences of their annexation and our options for the weeks ahead. The debate is set out in full below. I asked William Hague the following question:

Guy Opperman (Hexham):

In 1994 Russia and all other key countries signed the Budapest memorandum, which preserved Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. What is the Foreign Secretary’s assessment of the clear breach by Russia of the 1994 memorandum, and how do we avoid reaching a situation in which we all feel the creeping threat of 1938?

The reason why the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances is important is this: it is a political agreement signed in Budapest, Hungary on 5 December 1994, providing security assurances by its signatories relating to Ukraine's accession to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons. The Memorandum was originally signed by three nuclear-powers, the Russian Federation, the United States of America, and the United Kingdom. Later, China and France statements of assurance as well. The memorandum included security assurances against threats or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine as well as those of Belarus and Kazakhstan. As a result Ukraine gave up the world's third largest nuclear weapons stockpile between 1994 and 1996. In short it is clear that Russia is in breach of an internation agreement, and its obligations to Ukraine under the Budapest Memorandum, and in clear violation of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Full debate is here:

Six months until the Scottish independence referendum. We are Better Together

I know of noone who does not love Scotland as a country, for its characters, for its history and for its whisky, amongst many other things. I hope all would agree it is a special place, with lovely people, gorgeous purple moors, great white beaches and the worlds finest golf courses. It has made a stellar contribution to Western thought and civilisation, from Adam Smith, Alexander Graham Bell, Robert Burns, Watt, Sean Connery, all the Flemings from 007 to the creator of penicillin, and comedians from Billy Connelly to Andrew Neil [ok he is not a comedian, but he dices and slices politicians, and that can be very entertaining].

But the reality is that the union between England and Scotland – a gigantic political fact for over 300 years – is under threat. Now we face divorce, and like all divorces this is going to be messy and expensive. The prospect is of liberation – a new beginning. I know a few English who want to get rid of the subsidy of the Barnett formula, but these people are few and far between. Most English I know are strongly of the view that we are Better Together.

The Scottish government has published a White Paper explaining how on earth it is supposed to work.
On the issue of the pound and currency they are unravelling before our eyes.
On immigration and their status as a nation state they fail to realise that we would need border control at Carter Bar.
On Europe they do not want to be a member of the EU or Euro, yet want all the benefits.
What about Britain’s nuclear missiles, and the need to use submarine bases in Scotland?
What about Scottish regiments in the British Army?
The British Broadcasting Corporation?
Answer came there none.

Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, spelt out some truths on his visit to Scotland. If Scotland wants to become independent then bizarrely it will need to come cap in hand to the rest of the UK on so many things:
- will the rest of the UK continue to act as a bank of last resort?
- will the rest of the UK continue to subsidise Scotland?
- The SNP need to recognise that you cannot spend 30 years saying England and the rest of the UK are terrible, parsimonious and do not let Scotland have its own way... and then want the rest of the UK to bail them out after they have won independence.

The economic argument against independence is won. That may well not be enough to win the Referendum, but Salmond and his crew are devoid of the economic facts of life.
One thing is clear: If there is to be a divorce it will be unutterably wretched and painful, and it will eliminate the most successful political union in history.
So phone your Scottish friends and make the case. This fight matters to us all. We are Better Together.

Monday, 17 March 2014

This Ukraine "referendum" is a farce even by the standards of Putin's Russia

97% of the Crimea voted to split from Ukraine and go back to Mother Russia. But we are right in the EU to reject the findings. This is somethoing dreamt up by Putin, enforced by Putin and seekeing to solve propblems elsewhere that Putin cannot control. History teaches us that when a country has domestic problems at home, particularly economic, it creates a smokescreen elsewhere. Remember the Argentinian Falklands invasion to smokescreen domestic economic woes in Buenos Aires? Similar comments could be made about many other conflicts not least the First World War.

On the ballot paper, voters were asked whether they would like Crimea to rejoin Russia.

A second question asked whether Ukraine should return to its status under the 1992 constitution, which would give the region much greater autonomy.

Crimea is presently an autonomous republic within Ukraine, and transferred from Russia in 1954
It has:
Ethnic Russians - 58.5%
Ethnic Ukrainians - 24.4%
Crimean Tatars - 12.1%

There was no option for those who wanted the constitutional situation to remain unchanged.
As with all referenda it is the question which is key. Hence why the Scottish question is so fair, and the Crimea question so biased.

Last week I met with Ukrainian MP, Andri Shevchenko, in London. He made it clear that Ukrainians see the Crimea as the first step of future Russian agression. Ethnic Tatars, who make up 12% of the population, mostly boycotted the election. Sanctions are going to follow, and we have a debate in the House of Commons and a statement by William Hague tomorrow.   

Criminal Justice & Courts Bill Committee will dominate my next 3 weeks in the Commons

We have committee sessions morning and afternoon March 18,20,25,27 and April 1, starting at 8.55 and usually ending at 5. When people ask why parliament is often empty on parliament channel tv this is the reason. At any given time members will be sitting on a bill committee scrutinising it line by line, or on a select committee whether it is health, transport or treasury - every department has a select committee, or in Westminster Hall, the second chamber of the House of Commons where we have lesser but often more local debates. So if you want to know where I am on these days it will be in committee not in the main chamber. The Bill looks to reform prisons, sentences, juries, the courts, and tidies up a number of different areas in the justice department. As always with all Bills the first draft is not the final draft as we go through multiple assessments of the Bill, as does the House of Lords, until hopefully we take a piece of legislation that is 80% right and turn it into something that is watertight, reforming, and makes sense. The process takes many months. This committee is merely one stage of that, and the committee is cross party.  It is televised but I confess I am not totally clear where you can find this, but it will be available. There are daily transcripts. If you want to read my cross examination of witnesses in the first evidence sessions [or any part of proceedings] go here for the first session, which was concerning Magistrates, IPPs, and Prison Reform, with the Howard League and the Criminal Justice Alliance:
And here for my questioning of the representatives of the Bar Council and Law Society on issues of judicial review, protective costs orders, judicial discretion and costs:
It is not for me to judge the evidence of the people who gave up their time to appear before members of the committee. The majority are unpaid or are appearing as representatives of their part of an affected business or third sector organisation. Some are more helpful and assisting than others. Some changed my mind with their evidence. Others, particularly on the second session, I am afraid changed my mind against the witness. However, one thing is clear: as a committee we are grateful to all for attending.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Visiting Local First and Middle Schools over the last month

I have visited 4 schools over the last month: Wylam First, Prudhoe West First, Ovingham Middle two Fridays ago, and Bellingham Middle School just over 14 days ago. It is worth setting out some of the impressions of our Tynedale schools - although for todays blog I have not addressed Bellingham in detail, because my blog a couple of weeks ago addressed that visit in part. Certainly last month it was clear to me that Bellingham Middle was doing very well - see here:

The importance of the visits to the local East Tynedale schools is the past problems of Prudhoe Community High School, which I am pleased to say is clearly turning itself around after an unlucky Ofsted inspection. I have not met the new headteacher at PCHS, although we are sorting a meeting in the near future, but I am hearing very good things. One thing is clear: I am certain that Prudhoe Community High School has a future which I believe will be a lot better than the last 6 months.

A month ago I went to Wylam First School, and met with many of the teachers, governors, pupils and a couple of parents. On any interpretation it is a very happy and friendly school. I was pleased to hear of the good news on the school roof, the recent positive results, the fact that numbers are so good and the general sense of optimism about the school.  Certainly the news that Northumberland County Council have agreed to repair the Wylam First School Roof is good news, and a testament to the hard work of so many, not least the governors. What is also clear is that this is a school that is at the heart of its local community: the role of the local community in the orchard is a good example of this in action. This is vital, and such integration is, I suspect, one of the keys to any such school thriving in the future.

Prudhoe West School is in a state of transition, because I arrived literally the day after the former deputy head had been promoted to be the new headteacher. The new head was full of enthusiasm and fizzing with new ideas. Also full of ideas, spark and fun were the 50 or so pupils who I saw prior to them coming to Westminster and the Houses of Parliament in the summer. We chatted for around 15-20 and the team and I are looking forward to welcoming them.

Then, two Fridays ago I went to Ovingham Middle School. Again it is a successful school, very much integrated into its local community, and building strongly on the character and make up of the local community. Thus, there is a strong science and environmental element to the school, which dovetails well with the local community, which my experience and the casework I receive as the Ovingham MP has shown that the village has a particularly proactive environmental approach.

My visits to the schools are clearly snapshots, but all are run by positive heads, and enthusiastic teachers, making do with occasionally creaking school infrastructure and a "can do" attitude. The coalition has safeguarded and protected 4-16 education funding, but all the local schools would want a better financial settlement. The problem here is the traditionally poor deal that rural areas, and particularly Northumberland, suffers from when compared to urban areas. Efforts are being made to change the funding formula but this requires a major funding shift and, in any event, by necessity, would change slowly over many years. But the argument for such a change - although there would be winners and losers around the country (Northumberland would do better) is a tough one to make politically, albeit there is a growing acceptance of the need to change.
UPDATE: Since I started drafting this blog we have had the announcement of enhanced funding for the Northumberland schools, announced last Thursday by David Laws, in the Commons. I am trying to find out more but on first appraisal this appears to be both very good news, and part of the change we need as part of the Fairer Funding campaign.

It is an almost impossible job to visit every school in the constituency (not least because all visits have to be squeezed in on a Friday, as I am in London Monday to Thursday most weeks) but I am
slowly getting there. I hope to finish this task in the next year but am struggling to visit all the First Schools across Ponteland and Tynedale. But all 3 of the East Tynedale schools I visited are clearly well run and in good order.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The Weekend Read: How to save money on your Energy Bills

The cold is still with us. With nights still long and cold mornings, residents across Tynedale sometimes really struggle to heat their homes. Turning the heating on is, for many, the only choice. Yet, doing so is becoming increasingly costly. Increasing fuel prices are leaving homeowners feeling the pinch and residents are faced with a difficult choice; save money or stay warm.

I have long been campaigning against fuel poverty. It was back in January 2011 that I first said families face the choice between ‘heating or eating’. For some time I have thought we should try and bring together all the key info, and the key local suppliers, in one available online and physical booklet.

Now, to help those who struggling with their fuel bills, I have tried to do something practical, and produced a guide to assist households across the constituency. The booklet, entitled ‘How to save money on your energy bills’, provides clear and concise advice outlining what help is available and how to access it.
I am very conscious, talking to many of my constituents, that energy costs and fuel are a real concern. There is lots of help already out there but it can sometimes be hard to find and difficult to know who to turn to. This guide is designed to help make homes more energy efficient and make my constituents aware of what extra support is now available.

The booklet presents a range of solutions on how you can stay warm and save money. Basic techniques, ranging from cavity wall and loft insulation, using energy efficient light bulbs and checking your boiler, are discussed.
There is a wealth of information on the available funds that many households can claim. Information on the EDF Energy Trust, British Gas and Npower energy funds are provided. Calor’s rural fuel poverty initiative is also explained [and I have to record my thanks to Calor for helping make the Fuel Poverty Guide possible].

There is also information on the Warm Home Discount Scheme, winter fuel payments, surviving winter fund and much more.
Renewables / Biomass:
Biomass boilers are, for instance a great way to generate heat cheaply. More than that, home owners can claim the Renewable Heat incentive once they have installed a biomass boiler – which could earn them up to £7,000 per year for 7 years.  
I know the fight against fuel poverty will not be won with a single booklet. But I do hope that it goes someway to provide a bit of extra support and guidance for those struggling with the cost of energy this winter.
The Centre for Green Energy, based in Hexham, is a leading supplier of biomass boilers. They helped with the booklet and their director, Allister Marsh, said: "We are absolutely delighted that Guy is spearheading this campaign against fuel poverty. The Energy Booklet is designed to help residents to make their home more energy efficient and make them aware of the available support. As biomass experts we are passionate about the cost saving benefits of wood heating systems, and we are pleased that the booklet carefully explains the benefits of the Government led Renewable Heat Incentive to householders. We fully support Guy in his campaign to publicise the enormous problem of the cost of increasing energy bills, and applaud his efforts in writing and distributing a useful information source.
We look forward to giving advice to any householder who wishes to understand more about the alternatives to expensive fossil fuel heating".
For those in the most rural parts and live off-grid, oil buying clubs are an excellent way to save money. By joining a club, members can buy supplies in bulk and share the price, thus reducing the cost greatly. The MP works very closely with the clubs, and has often sung their praises in the House of Commons.  
Oil Buying Groups:
Information on a number of our many groundbreaking oil groups is provided in the booklet. There is potentially one for everyone in Tynedale, and they will defintely save you money if you are buying heating oil.
The Haydon Bridge Oil buying Co-op, for example, has 170 households at present and is continually growing. Steve Ford, the HBOBC co-ordinator, believes that ‘it is not the government’s responsibility to provide cheap energy but everybody’s responsibility to take action to reduce their own energy consumption and this booklet helps a lot.’
‘By acting as a group we do exert influence on the suppliers. A socially cohesive community has power that individuals do not.’
Christina John, general administrator at the Allen Valleys oil buying club, said, “This is a comprehensive booklet which includes some very useful sign-posting.  As well as general information about saving money on energy bills, there is information in here that I suspect not many people will be aware of and certainly isn’t easy to get hold of.  Hopefully constituents will benefit from the contact details given. ‘

Thousands of the booklets are being distributed across the constituency, again at no cost to the taxpayer, with the hope that those who need this information most will receive it.

Alison Rees, Domestic Fuel Adviser for the West Northumberland Citizens Advice Bureau said ‘Help is available for those who are struggling to heat their homes affordably and this booklet is a useful guide for taking steps towards a warmer home.’
I stress this booklet does not have all the answers but I know it can help. You can download it here:
I cannot thank enough all the businesses, volunteers and others who have made it happen. This is our first year of a booklet that has taken a long time to come together.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Tony Benn and Bob Crow RIP

My thoughts are with their families, particularly Hilary Benn MP, who has a lot of his fathers qualities as a speaker. Benn was a legend. My favourite quote of his is -
all war represents a failure of diplomacy.

Good luck to local Stocksfield horse Knockara Beau in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham Today

Todays race at 3.20 will be a cracker:
In my view the Stocksfield 11 year old horse has a good chance of a place, albeit he is 66-1. Please God he just comes home safely. Silviniaco Conti is a worthy favourite but a while ago I had a punt on Triolo D'Alene each way with AP McCoy on board at 12-1

If you want to know why Knockara Beau is so famous, and successful, at Cheltenham, look here:

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Our local Tyne Valley Trains really matter

My latest blogpost, and the announcement of a pilot project to provide full time cover for the two key late trains from Newcastle to Carlisle, has upset some of the train guards / staff apparently. You can read the post and the indignant and upset comment of the guard here:
I have to say I could not disagree more with the individual guard, or the sentiments.
I would make 2 points, and a couple of comments:
- I have had repeated complaints about these late trains at public meetings, surgeries in Haltwhistle in particular, and in letters. Sadly for the staff member who wrote in saying there is not a problem the evidence is against him and he should look to his own colleagues - as one of the people who complained was a train guard with Northern. There has definitely been a problem. It has not gone away. But I hope it will now.
- secondly the company Northern Rail, and the British Transport Police agree. The past prosecutions do not lie, and they have agreed to change the rota to address the problem. They are not spending their cash without a reason. In my view they should be applauded for listening.
- this train line really matters. Many people have gone to great lengths to improve the trains, the stations, the businesses that operate en route, and so much more. It is a line that is integral to our commuters, tourists and occasional users like myself and many others.

Going forward I am pushing hard to support the many people involved with the Gilsland Station Project, talking to Network rail about upgrades regarding train crossings, attempting to get an Oyster card system to operate on both the trains and buses, and trying to help those who want everything from better disabled access to station improvements.
I could say more but would finish on one point. To argue that I am doing this to get extra votes is laughable. As an MP there are only so many battles that you, and your very few staff, can fight, and I could do other campaigns that are way more populist, and would affect more people. But, the truth is I like trains, and I think this is a vital line that needs supporting if Tynedale has a future. And it does need work, as episodes like Torchgate, the franchise issues and other problems with the carriages have shown. Also, the old adage is very simple, and the staff should really grasp this: either we persuade people to use a service - or we will lose or lessen it. All I am doing is representing the constituents who write in, complain as users, and am trying to improve a crucial extra artery down the Tyne Valley. If any staff want to write in and ask for other changes I will help them too. To finish I would thank the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group for their support.   

Welcoming Harriet Barrett to Westminster and Number 10 Downing Street

Last week Harriet Barrett, from Ponteland High School, was invited down to London to celebrate International Women’s day on Thursday 6th March.

Harriet was awarded the opportunity, having undergone an intense selection process at school. I know she had a great time on her first trip to London. Indeed the first door she knocked on was Number 10 Downing Street! We decided to do a traditional handshake outside, as you can see.
We asked her what she thought: Harriet said: ‘The tour of number 10 was rather surreal, an incredible way to start my first visit to London.’

Harriett was joined by young women from Sixth forms across the country, as the purpose of the visit was to ‘inspire change’ and try and encourage more young women to engage with politics. Harriet shadowed me and the rest of the team around the House of Commons and in our small office, and saw firsthand the work we do.
The visit culminated in the Speakers Apartments where Jon Bercow, the House of Commons Speaker, and Maria Miller, the Secretary of State and Minister for Women and Equalities met and chatted to all the visiting students.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Multiple awards for the Blagdon Farm shop Butchers - so buy local

Many congratulations to Daniel Lovatt and all the team at the Blagdon Farm Shop, as they win yet another award!
If you do not buy your meat at your local butcher you have to ask why not?
Support your local butchers, or you will lose them, however good they are. And the Blagdon Farm Shop butchers are truly exceptional. Try their sausages, in particular.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Campaign for increased public protection on late night trains takes a step forward

Very large numbers of constituents have complained about the actions of a minority of drunks and idiots on the late night trains primarily from Newcastle to Hexham. We have met with dozens of residents both from the Tyne Valley Rail Users Group and locals from Hexham, Haydon Bridge and Haltwhistle who have been so affected.
After a recent meeting with BTP and Northern I am really grateful to them for making the effort to try a full time monitoring of the 2 key trains. Thus, in a new pilot project will see British Transport Police boarding trains between the two cities and travelling on both the 7.25pm and 9.18pm departures on a Friday and Saturday night. It is fair to say I have never had any complaints on any other trains save these evening trains.
It is hoped disorder on these routes will be prevented by the British Transport Police (BTP) presence.
As always I would ask anyone on the trains to write or email in with their comments and suggestions. See the full report in the Journal here:

Monday, 10 March 2014

William Hague in Northumberland sets out his foreign policy vision

Kiev, Westminster, Paris, Newcastle, Northumberland and Yorkshire was the diary for the Foreign Secretary last week, who kindly drove north from Yorkshire on Thursday night to honour a long standing engagement to meet and talk through some of the decisions he faces. Dozens of locals came to listen to William, and our local North East MEP, Martin Callanan, as they discussed everything from the Ukraine to the Scottish Referendum, with side journeys to discuss the problems of the EU, Syria, North Korea, and much more. The Foreign Secretary talked and took questions for over 2 hours, without a pause or a note.

On Ukraine he was very clear that diplomacy is key to a de-escalation of the situation, and he has clearly been leading the way on this issue - having met with the Russian Foreign Minister last Wednesday. The UK supports the powerful case for the deployment of UN and OSCE monitors to Crimea and other areas of concern in Ukraine, given the grave risk of clashes and escalation on the ground. There is a desire to get the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to use the UN’s authority to bring about direct contact between Russia and Ukraine, and to facilitate the peaceful resolution of this issue.

But it was not just Ukraine the great man spoke of. He made the point that as Foreign Secretary he has visited 80 countries on the UK's behalf over the last 3 3/4 years, and opened a large number of new embassies and consulates. On the Euroland problems the Foreign Secretary was very robust. He repeated his assertion that not only would the UK never join the Euro but that entering the single currency was "like going into a burning with no exits."

In addition, the FS explained the work done with Iran and Iraq as both these countries begin to engage more constructively with the west, and the attempts to assist Lebanon and Jordan with the refugee crisis they face. He also described travelling to South Korea's border with North Korea, and the difficulties of keeping the peace on both sides of the most militarised border in the world. I could tell the tales of his encounters with everyone from Screaming Lord Sutch to Angelina Jolie, and going to the London Olympic Judo finals with President Putin, but the reality is that that 95% of the debate on thursday evening was serious, and rightly so.

We kept coming back to the Ukraine situation and I, for one, am very glad that William Hague is batting for Britain as we try and find a diplomatic solution to what is a very serious problem for all of us in western Europe and in the UK. 

If you want more detail on this conflict and how the UK is trying to resolve this please read William's statement to the House of Commons from last week:

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Free vote on Assisted Suicide Law Change

The law needs to change: I have long campaigned for a change in the law on assisted suicide. There needs to be very stringent safeguards but I am as one with many Labour collegaues - Paul Blomfield, MP, Heidi Alexander, MP, and Lord Falconer are 3 amongst many who seek a law change. Interesting to see my Liberal colleague Norman Lamb, MP, who works in the Department of Health also advocating a change in the law. The Conservatives cause is led by Sir Richard Ottaway, MP.
The previous debate, and the opinion polls, on this issue is found here:
We presently have one law for the rich, another for the poor. Noone who has gone to Dignitas in Switzerland has had family members who have helped them prosecuted. Yet such an option is simply beyond the means of 99% of the population. The Telegraph reports a free vote on the change in the law - this is something I would welcome.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Great news as the Hexham Hospital gets an upgrade

Last week I was pleased to open the new scanner at Hexham Hospital. This scanner is a further example of the improvement in the health facilities that are on offer for us in Tynedale. I was shown the new kit by Radiographer John Richardson, previous patient Pauline Gilroy, and consultant Rita Robson. The scanner will help diagnose a range of conditions quickly.

This bit of kit costs in excess of £500,000, and is state of the art advanced diagnostic equipment.
The scanner, which can be used for any part of the body, provides high quality images to enable clinicians at the hospital to quickly assess patients.
The machine is genuinely state of the art, and I should know as I have used them a lot when I was a jockey; this is excellent news that local people are able to have their scans here in Hexham, without having to travel out of the area, and be able to have their appointments sooner.
More details here:

Friday, 7 March 2014

Shell, Standard Life, RBS, Citigroup, etc all say independence would be a disaster for Scots

The banks and companies telling Scots not to leave just keeps getting bigger.
Alex Salmond’s blueprint for separation suffered another body blow when senior economists at a leading global bank said they were “astonished” by his refusal to outline a Plan B on currency.

In a detailed analysis, Citigroup outlined a range of concerns over independence, and suggested a separate Scotland could have the same credit rating as Trinidad & Tobago. Its damning verdict emerged amid further signs of corporate unease over September’s vote, with a leading Scottish investment trust revealing that it is setting up extra companies in England because of the uncertainty caused by the referendum.

All 3 political leaders of the main parties havbe made it clear that the decision not to share the pound in a currency union was “final”. Why would we? It would saddle the rest of the UK with a economy in freefall.
Standard Life has warned it could quit an independent Scotland. Today Citigroup’s top economists and political analysts said a sterling monetary union was unlikely, and predicted a Yes vote would leave Scotland in a “relatively weak and risky fiscal position”.
Their paper added: “In our view, it is astonishing that the Scottish Government, in seeking independence, has reached this stage: seeking a currency union without agreement with the rest of the UK and without a clear alternative plan. The painful euro area strains make it clear that the set-up for the currency and monetary policy is crucial: it cannot be ignored or assumed to ‘be alright on the night’.”

The paper said there was nothing inherently implausible about independence, while highlighting three key areas of concern, including the currency issue. It also noted that North Sea oil revenues were falling and had pushed up the country’s fiscal deficit to around 8.3 per cent of GDP, which was above UK levels. And it pointed to Scotland’s large banking system, which might be “too big to save for Scotland alone if it came to that”.

Meanwhile, the Dundee-based investment company Alliance Trust became the latest firm to express major concerns over the referendum. It said it was creating companies registered in England, into which it could transfer activities, in a precautionary move because of uncertainty over the implications of a Yes vote on tax, financial regulation, currency and EU membership.

Katherine Garrett-Cox, chief executive of the firm, which also has offices in Edinburgh and London, said: “We are extremely proud of our 126 year Scottish heritage but I think the reality is you have to be very aware of the risks that your customers are facing and ensure you can provide certainty and continuity of services.”
She added that 80 per cent of the company’s clients were based in England and the impact independence was top of their “list of risks”.

Alistair Carmichael, the Scottish Secretary, urged voters to listen to what Scotland’s businesses are saying, adding: “Standard Life, RBS, Bank of Scotland, Aggreko, the Alliance Trust, BP and Shell are all warning that independence could mean higher costs and moving jobs and headquarters out of Scotland.
“It’s absolutely clear independence would be a big problem for Scotland rather than the solution, and not having any sort of currency plan makes it an even bigger problem.”
The CBI, the UK’s leading business organisation, joined the criticism, with Katja Hall, its policy director, telling the Scottish Government it “must” outline a Plan B on currency.

Simple question: do the Scots really want an economy like Trinidad and Tobago - no offence to our Caribbean friends but this is not where Scotland is right now. But independence would be a messy, painful and very expensive divorce.

Stephen Lawrence Met Police corruption report by Mark Ellison is truly horrifying

I have never seen the House of Commons so collectively upset as yesterday over the Met Police.
Stephen Lawrence, 18, was murdered in Eltham, south east London, in April 1993: Scotland Yard failed for 19 years to bring his killers to justice. The force’s failings prompted the Macpherson Report in 1999, which found that the Met was “institutionally racist”.
Yesterday the Houses of Parliament were told by Mark Ellison QC, in his report on the Met that the Met Police behaved in an unbelievably unacceptable manner for many years afterwards:
- Officers continued to deceive the government, police bosses, the Macpherson Inquiry and most of all the Lawrence family throughout subsequent investigations.

- Ellison found material which was not made available to the Macpherson inquiry, including evidence that suggested one officer DS Davidson was corrupt and had links to Clifford Norris, the father of David Norris, who was convicted of Stephen’s murder together with Gary Dobson in 2012.

- Ellison found that an undercover officer codenamed N81 was planted by the Met’s top secret Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) and passed on information about the state of Doreen and Neville Lawrence’s marriage and other family details to senior officers.
Mr Ellison describes “reasonable grounds” to suspect that one of the detectives investigating her son’s murder had a “corrupt relationship” with the gangster father of one of the killers, and that other officers may also have been corrupt. Possible miscarrigaes of justice may have occurred as well.

The findings of the report – commissioned by Theresa May, the Home Secretary – were so disturbing that MPs struggled to maintain their composure. Jack Straw, MP, the Home Secretary at the time of the Macpherson Inquiry was visibly shocked by the "venality" of the Met Police's approach.

Theresa May has immediately announced an independent Judge led public inquiry into undercover policing and the Met's handling of the case - describing the report’s findings as “profoundly shocking”.
Baroness Lawrence, whose first response in the House of Lords yesterday was to thank Mrs May for tackling such a “difficult” issue, spoke of her difficulties over the years in convincing police officers and home secretaries that her suspicions about the Met were valid.

Once again it is right to make the point thart 99.9% of police officers are straight as a die, and that in nearly 20 years as a lawyer prosecuting and defending in criminal courts I worked with exceptional officers doing a very difficult job with great dignity, effort and restraint. But the actions of the Met Police over several years puts the public perception of the police in a wider context into question. I try to be as even handed as I can be when describing these events in parliament or elsewhere but yesterday was a shocker. People were open mouthed in horror at what had gone on.

At the end of the day a blameless young black man's life was savagely taken by thugs. To make matters worse the reality is that the police did much to stop the killers being brought to justice. I applaud the Home Secretary for grasping the nettle and shining transparent light on the past, by way of a public inquiry, so that we may have a better future. This country needs a Met Police that is not tainted by corruption.
If you want more details read here:
If you want to know the full picture and read the summary of Ellisons report that is also available online

School and business visit followed by surgeries in Tynedale today

Ovingham Middle School is first stop this morning, followed by a visit to Release Potential, a growing business just outside Stocksfield, run by Gaye Hutchinson and her team. Really looking forward to both visits as both the school and the business are clearly moving in the right direction.I then have a series of meetings and surgery calls based out of the Hexham Office.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Sugar is the new Public Health risk - cut your intake
The truth about the health risks from sugar become clearer every day. We face an obesity and diabetes crisis that is crippling our NHS and our health.
Britain’s chief medical officer has suggested that a sugar tax should be introduced in order to curb obesity rates, saying research was likely to find that the ingredient is “addictive”.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Male Cancer is a killer - are you going commando on Friday?
1000 men a week are diagnosed with bowel, prostrate or testicular cancer. If there is early diagnosis most will live. But most men are reluctant to talk about anything below the waistline. We need to change this and the only way is by talking about it!
To their credit a number of celebs have led the way by agreeing to Go COMMANDO on Friday
You should do too!
I will be going Commando on Friday.

And if you have not had a check up do so.
If you see blood when you go to the loo this is serious and get it checked out. My family have a history of cancer, and I have regular check ups. We are all going to die. Don't die of embarrasement. That would be a waste.

Only yesterday I raised this campaign in the House of Commons when my colleague Eric Ollerenshaw was raining the issue of Pancreatic Cancer. Full debate and my request for all colleagues to commando is here:

The rise of white collar apprentices is good news
The Guardian focuses on Newcastle as National Apprentice Week shows how well this reform is going.
It is clear that school-leavers' attitudes are changing:

As one apprentice says: "People used to think that if you go on to sixth form, you go on to uni, and now people know it's not the only way."
National Apprenticeship Week is designed to raise the profile of on-the-job training.
Full praise to my Hexham Shire constituent Bob Paton, who is leading the way in the North East at Accenture.
More details of my thoughts on this in the debate I held in the House:

12 Years a Slave exists in the present day: that is why we need a Modern Slavery Bill to combat it

In his Oscars acceptance speech Steve McQueen declared he was dedicating the award for his film 12 Years A Slave to ‘all the people who have endured slavery. And to the millions of people who still suffer slavery today’. His words will no doubt cause shock and surprise; to many it will seem scarcely credible that slavery can exist in our modern age.

Modern slavery is an evil which is happening around the world today – including here in Britain. Across this country in restaurants, shops, brothels, nail bars and on illegal drugs farms are women, men and children, being held against their will, and forced into a life of slavery and abuse.

The Government is determined to stamp out this appalling crime. We are introducing a Modern Slavery Bill – the first of its kind in Europe – which will consolidate and strengthen legislation, making it easier to prosecute and ensuring the harshest penalties are available for the slave drivers and traffickers who inflict such pain and harm. And we can do even more than legislation. An effective law enforcement response is vital if we are to identify victims, and so we are raising awareness and training frontline professionals. We are creating an Anti-Slavery Commissioner – a vital post that will hold to account law enforcement at all levels, the Crown Prosecution Service, local authorities and others to ensure that when victims are identified they are compensated and cared for – and when the slave drivers are found they are put behind bars and stripped of their assets. In Britain and across Europe prosecution rates are far, far too low. I want to change that.
We are also developing a range of policies to tackle this abhorrent crime. Some can take effect now – like the child advocates pilots – and others will take longer – like our work with foreign governments.
Ridding Britain of modern slavery will not happen overnight. But every arrest, and every prosecution, means more victims freed, and more prevented from being enslaved in the first place. And all those who still engage in this appalling trade in human misery should be clear: they will be tracked down, prosecuted and sent behind bars.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Dementia Friendly Villages are the future + Corbridge is leading the way

Corbridge is on course to become Northumberland’s first dementia-friendly community as part of a nationwide initiative being rolled out by the Alzheimer’s Society.

Focusing on improving the inclusion and quality of life of people with dementia, the scheme requires the participation of local residents, traders and key public figures, such as police officers and bus drivers. Crucially, it means people affected by the condition are not afraid to seek help from members of their own community. They can go about their daily business, including tasks such as shopping, banking and using public transport, knowing that if they become forgetful and confused, the people around them will be supportive and understanding.
The statistics locally need to be understood to gauge the huge issue we face locally:

In Northumberland around 4,690 people currently live with dementia
This figure is expected to rise to around 6,250 by 2021.
The project’s ultimate aim is to raise awareness and increase understanding of the illness.

Amy Syron-Mallenby, The Alzheimer’s Society business development officer for Northumberland, said: “A dementia-friendly community is a city, town or village where people with dementia are understood, respected, supported, and confident they can contribute to community life. There are simple steps communities can take towards becoming dementia-friendly, as well as launching the new symbol that communities can use to show they are committed to making changes.

The steps range from challenging stigma to including people with dementia in local life and highlighting the importance of accessible transport and businesses that are respectful and responsive; elsewhere in Northumberland, support is also being harnessed to help Hexham and Berwick become designated dementia-friendly communities.

In Corbridge, the project has been driven by parish councillor Melvyn Stone, who has already undergone training with the charity to become a dementia friend. These are volunteers who are prepared to turn their understanding of dementia into practical action.

Coun. Stone explained:
“In Corbridge, we are already doing a number of things as a village which ensure dementia sufferers are firmly part of the community. We have a drop-in centre, the Florence Hope activity club, which takes place in the parish hall twice a week. We also now have a weekly walking group with between nine to 12 trained walk leaders we can call upon to lead walks in the local area suitable for people with dementia. We adapt them to suit the person’s physical fitness and it means they can be accompanied by their carers out in the fresh air, or their carer, particularly if it’s a husband or wife, can go into the village and have a coffee or enjoy a bit of a break.”

The assisted walking group was developed from a core of interested volunteers who originally met through the West Northumberland Health Walks programme, run by North Country Leisure. They have since won £2,000 of grant funding in their own right and plan to get 2014’s walking programme underway in April.
“I’ve also had a meeting with at least nine of the village’s traders who all registered their interest in supporting the initiative and have since undergone training,” said Coun. Stone.
The next step for the traders is to sign up to displaying a dementia-friendly logo within their premises to provide an extra level of reassurance that they are on board.

It is also hoped a music workshop can be established where people of all ages and abilities can get together on a regular basis to enjoy their chosen instrument.
Coun. Stone said: “It’s been inspired by one of the village’s residents who plays the recorder particularly well and came to me, as chairman of the parish hall management committee, to see if we could set something up.”
Corbridge Women’s Institute has offered to support the venture by providing St Andrew’s church cottage in the village as a base for the gathering. “I don’t have anyone in my family that has suffered from dementia or any particular personal story,” said Coun. Stone, “But I feel lucky enough to live in one of the nicest and friendliest towns in the country, among people who are very proactive and willing to do their bit.
“Corbridge is a lovely, friendly, close-knit community so our village is the ideal place to be a shining beacon for dementia-friendly communities, so people with dementia can enjoy their surroundings for as long as possible.”

“It is more common in people over 65, but I’ve learned through my training that there are more than 400 different types of dementia and it’s such a complex condition. It’s happening to more and more people in front of our eyes and it’s important that we address it and do everything we can to help those suffering from it. I suppose I’m interested in dementia because so many people are not interested, but I get a feeling that people in Corbridge are ready to change things for the better. Because of all the criteria we already meet and the steps we are undertaking, Corbridge qualified in just 48 hours to begin working to become a dementia-friendly village.”

Melvyn is preparing to embark on more training which will allow him to become a designated dementia friends champion, enabling him to deliver information sessions and training to other local volunteers.
Last September, The Alzheimer’s Society launched a report Building Dementia-friendly Communities: a priority for everyone, which revealed less than half of people living with dementia feel a part of their community.

An economic analysis commissioned by the charity shows that building a network of dementia-friendly communities could save £11,000 per person, per year by helping people with dementia to remain independent and stay out of care for longer. Amy, who has been working alongside Coun. Stone, said: “To create a dementia-friendly community we need to bring together every part of the Corbridge community from health services, social care, transport, businesses, charities and voluntary groups, emergency services and local people. Thanks to Melvyn we are heading in the right direction.”

For further details about The Alzheimer’s Society, contact the charity’s Hexham office on (01434) 607318.
If you wish to become a dementia friend or would like to help with the initiative in Corbridge, contact Melvyn Stone on 07803 955148 or e-mail m.stone113@btinternet .com