I want to turn to a subject that can have a big effect on people – the Welfare System. The Welfare System that we have today has been over a century in the making and is the work of each political party that has held office in that period. The system has grown and adapted as society has changed and thus it is likely that it will always need reform to meet new challenges and circumstances. By and large, the system works well to help get people into work so that they can support themselves and their families. In this constituency, we have one of the lowest rates of unemployment in the country. This does mean job opportunities for some and in-work benefits where necessary. It also means support for the minority who cannot work through sickness, disability or personal circumstances. It is a mark of a civilised society that we look after those who cannot look after themselves. This may be life-long support for someone or support through a temporary difficult time.
In recent months, I have been concerned with the operation of aspects of the current system, particularly Personal Independence Payments which are in a period of transition, and may not be meeting the needs of some people. Thus some of the very people we seek to support are falling through the gaps. For example, I am concerned at the time assessments can take and also at the quality of some assessments. Where there is a discrepancy in an assessment, I am concerned at the time it can take to raise a concern and for reassessment. I am concerned, too, at the difficulties that seem to arise when assessing medical conditions with debilitating symptoms that are intermittent or erratic and which may just happen not to be apparent at the time of assessment.
I am concerned that this may be failing some of the vulnerable people in our society and therefore I have raised my concerns with the new Secretary of State for Welfare as a matter that needs addressing urgently. I await her response.
I share the concerns of those who have written to me about the NHS and the perceptions in the media. But the NHS has been fully funded according to its own requests and they write as if we have never had a winter crisis in the NHS. We have had a winter crisis of some kind or another every year and this year's is increased by the rising number of flu cases. As was said yesterday in the House of Commons by a member of the Opposition, "the normal pressures have been added to this winter by freezing weather and influenza."
However, in 2009/10 the Conservative shadow Health Secretary chose not to try to take advantage of the then near flu pandemic at the time because he recognised that there were operational pressures on the NHS and it was not down to him to score party political points. At that time, tens of thousands of procedures were cancelled to provide capacity to cope with the emergency at the front doors of our hospitals, many of them at the last minute. So, the approach we have taken of cancelling operations in advance is a much more humane and sensible way to do things and it provides much more opportunity for hospitals to cope with the pressures that are coming through the door.
Despite tight public finances, the Government has actively supported the NHS's own plan for the future. The total spent by the Department of Health in England is about £145 billion. We are increasing NHS spending by at least £8 billion in real terms over the next five years.
Over the next three years, the Government will provide the NHS with an additional £2.8 billion resource funding. By the end of last year, the NHS had received £335 million to manage winter pressures; a further £1.6 billion will be invested in 2018-19, and in 2019-20, £900 million will be provided to help address future issues. Furthermore, the Government is currently offering local councils an additional £2 billion to help them fund adult social care services in a time of great pressure.
Here in Oxfordshire, the snapshot report of Delayed Discharges of Care (so-called bed blockers) for the end of December shows a massive reduction compared with May 2017. Delayed Discharges of Care can contribute to the problems faced by the NHS at this time. This is in line with the trajectory agreed with the Department of Health and I hope you will join me in congratulating our health workers for achieving this significant improvement.
This improvement has been achieved through recruitment of more staff and commissioning extra packages of care and interim nursing home beds to mitigate pressure. So more people are leaving hospital with a care package and that is driving the reduction we have seen, together with tightening up and streamlining assessment and other internal processes. The reduction in delays has been achieved by getting the right resources to those patients who need them to return home, and not due to people going home without the support they need.
I believe fully in the NHS and its values, and I would like to assure you that the Government is committed to a tax-funded NHS, free at the point of use, wherever and whenever you need it. That is why it is increasing NHS spending. Ministers will continue to ensure that the NHS is given the priority it deserves.
I know the NHS is extremely busy – as it always is at this time of year – but staff are taking the necessary steps to make sure patients continue to get seen as quickly as possible.
In Scotalnd where the health service is controlled by the SNP similar pressures are being felt and similar action is being taken. In Wales where Labour run the NHS it is also a similar picture.
Let us be clear that the NHS has record levels of funding, with the Government supporting it over winter with an additional £437 million as well as £1 billion extra social care funding this year. And with planned action now rather than piecemeal actionn over the next few months.
So, the NHS has been better prepared for this winter than ever before. There are more beds available across the system. We have reduced the number of delayed discharges of elderly people who would otherwise have been in NHS beds rather than in social care (so called Bed Blocking). More than one thousand extra beds have been freed up in our NHS since February and we have extended the flu vaccination program.
We have been able to deliver more money for our NHS every year through adopting a balanced approach to the economy.
We are all well aware of the challenges the NHS is facing this winter in light of rising patient numbers, a flu epidemic, and the increasingly complex needs of an ageing population and we have planned for them. Our NHS was recently ranked as the best and safest healthcare system in the world and we want it to continue to deliver outstanding care.
Let me begin by sending my very best wishes to you all for a very Happy New Year. As I send greetings, I am aware that New Year is often a time of mixed feelings. The optimism of New Year is so widely celebrated that it can leave some people in low spirits as they look forward to the year ahead. As a New Year begins, I try to anticipate with optimism what we can achieve.
We should think of all those who volunteer across our society and provide valuable services to our communities; we take them for granted at great cost. In 2017, I was grateful for the opportunities set before me. For example, the chance to thank and help a number of individuals including medical charities focused on a wide range of illnesses both physical and mental. I also gave my support to ending the threat of closure of Chiltern Edge School and to trying to secure more funding for our schools.
As I look forward to 2018, I hope it will be a happy time for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle as they marry at Windsor. I will be playing my part in the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April, travelling to Nigeria as the Prime Minister's Trade Envoy to the country and to Strasbourg as a Parliamentary representative on the Council of Europe, playing a part in the successes they can bring for the country.
Nearer home, I hope to see the continuation of important activities such as Neighbourhood Planning, and to engaging with constituents at a number of different levels. Most of all though, I look forward to everyone enjoying a peaceful and prosperous time. The Henley Constituency is beautiful, with thriving communities and much goodwill. I hope we will all focus on things that can improve life for those who live here and ensure that they can take advantage of the opportunities that life has to offer.
Some people say we live in 'interesting times'. In truth, all times are 'interesting' and I hope that together we will be able to have constructive discussions about how we can make the most of the opportunities they offer.
I am delighted that the UK is leading the world in clean growth, reducing emissions faster than any other G7 country.
A BBC web site reported today that the UK has achieved its greenest year ever in terms of how the nation's electricity is generated,. The figures are produced by National Grid. It also revelaed that he rise of renewable energy helped break 13 clean energy records in 2017. In June, for the first time, wind, nuclear and solar power generated more UK power than g...as and coal combined.
Britain has halved carbon emissions in the electricity sector since 2012 to provide the fourth cleanest power system in Europe.
British wind farms produced more electricity than coal plants on more than 75% of days this year.
I have been asked how I voted on Amendment 7 to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Let me be clear from the beginning, I voted, as I said I would, with the Government. After due consideration, I could not see that the amendment moved by the rebels had any merit or made any difference as I explain below. The House, largely for opportunistic reasons, took a different view but this is just the committee stage of a Bill in which the Government has won 34 out of 35 votes by reasonable majorities.
Amendment 7 was not about parliamentary sovereignty nor was it to give me a say over the Brexit Bill. I already have a continuing say over the Brexit Bill as I will explain later in this note. What the amendment, however, wants to suggest is that all we will be doing is voting on Brexit at the end of the process and that Parliament will have no role in the discussions up to that point. This is simply a misrepresentation.
Parliament has a continuing role in the process not least through the various Select Committees which hold Ministers and Departments to account and which are producing their own reviews of the impact of Brexit. My own Select Committee (the Justice Select Committee) for example has already done a review of Brexit on the legal system and has had a Government reply. We have also visited jurisdictions like Jersey and the Isle of Man to explore the effect Brexit will have on them. So, this work is not restricted to the Select Committee set up to review us leaving the EU and applies to us all.
I have already circulated a table illustrating how the EU Withdrawal Bill will deal with other measures to secure parliamentary approval during its passage. The use of Statutory Instruments (SI) in this is a normal and acceptable part of the way the House of Commons works and provides full scrutiny of the matters an SI covers.
I have quoted before the comments of a fellow Remainer in the constituency about amendment 7 – the so-called meaningful vote amendment. In his email, the writer accepts that Parliament will be given a meaningful vote as indicated by the Brexit Secretary but says that he wants a guarantee. Others have been more forthcoming and have said that the reason they wanted the amendment to succeed is due to the character and alleged actions of the Brexit Secretary.
This attack on an individual personality is what I found most unacceptable about the amendment and what I find, quite frankly, an abuse of parliament. A statement made by a Minister at the Despatch Box is absolutely valid regardless of whether the Minister subsequently changes. I find it unacceptable to use the parliamentary process to pursue a campaign against one Minister. In addition, of course, the Government has been very diligent at reporting back to Parliament by Statement after each major visit to Brussels. On the last occasion the Prime Minister spent almost 2 hours being questioned.
The Government has made it clear that there will be at least two agreements. A Withdrawal Agreement will be negotiated under Article 50 whilst the UK is a member of the EU. It will set out the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the EU as well as the details of any implementation period agreed between both sides. At the same time as we negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, we will therefore also negotiate the terms for our future relationship.
However as the Prime Minister made clear the EU is not "legally able to conclude an agreement with the UK as an external partner while it is itself still part of the European Union". So the Withdrawal Agreement will be followed shortly after we have left by one or more agreements covering different aspects of the future relationship.
The Withdrawal Agreement will need to be signed by both parties and concluded by the EU and ratified by the UK before it can enter into force. The UK approval and EU approval processes can operate in parallel. In the UK, the Government has committed to hold a vote on the final deal in Parliament as soon as possible after the negotiations have concluded. This vote will take the form of a resolution in both Houses of Parliament and will cover both the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship. The Government will not implement any parts of the Withdrawal Agreement until after this vote has taken place.
Any treaty subject to ratification will need to be placed before both Houses of Parliament for a period of at least 21 sitting days, after which the treaty may be ratified unless there is a resolution against this. If the House of Commons resolves against ratification the Government can lay a statement explaining why it considers the treaty should still be ratified and there is then a further 21 sitting days during which the House of Commons may decide whether to resolve again against ratification. The Government is only able to ratify the agreement if the House of Commons does not resolve against the agreement.
If Parliament supports the resolution to proceed with the Withdrawal Agreement and the terms for our future relationship, the Government will bring forward a Withdrawal Agreement & Implementation Bill to give the Withdrawal Agreement domestic legal effect. The Bill will implement the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement in UK law as well as providing a further opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny. This legislation will be introduced before the UK exits the EU and the substantive provisions will only take effect from the moment of exit. Similarly, we expect any steps taken through secondary legislation to implement any part of the Withdrawal Agreement will only be operational from the moment of exit, though preparatory provisions may be necessary in certain cases.
Whatever their final form, agreements on the future relationship are likely to require the consent of the European Parliament and conclusion by the Council. If both the EU and Member States are exercising their competences in an agreement, Member States will also need to ratify it. In the UK, therefore, the Government will introduce further legislation where it is needed to implement the terms of the future relationship into UK law, providing yet another opportunity for proper parliamentary scrutiny.
Parliament will be fully involved throughout the process as will I. But I will be involved on the basis of my assessment of the facts rather than the somewhat clumsy attempts to bully me into supporting rebel motions because the constituency allegedly voted to Remain. Whatever the constituency voted, this was a national vote not a constituency one, and we must honour the outcome regardless of our own view as we would in a General Election.
Our new draft animal welfare Bill will mean:
The RSPCA have said:
"To include the recognition of animal sentience, as well as increasing animal cruelty sentencing to 5 years into the new 2018 Animal Welfare Bill, is a very bold and welcome move by the Government."
Battersea Dogs & Cats Home say:
"Battersea is greatly encouraged by the Governments willingness to see sentences for the most shocking cases of animal cruelty increase from 6 months to 5 years and today's announcement takes a significant step in that direction."
This is really good news and takes the issue on much further. It contradicts the false news being put out at the time.
The reality is that the banks are paying more in taxes now than when Labour was in charge.
We have introduced an additional tax on banks which will raise nearly £9 billion by 2022. In January 2016, we introduced an 8 per cent corporation tax surcharge for banks that is forecast to raise £8.9 billion over the next five years 2017-22.
Since the Autumn Budget, Labour have been asked 22 times how they would afford their borrowing binge – and failed to answer every time:
o 'You don't need a number'
o 'Minimal' (The Andrew Marr Show, 19 November 2017).
o 'Trite form of journalism... That's why we have iPads and advisers'
o 'What we would do is ensure that day to day spending is not serviced by borrowing'
o 'We're now at the stage where interest rates are so low we should be borrowing to invest'
o 'It pays for itself'
o 'It pays for itself'
o Talked over another question (Today, 23 November 2017).
o 'Not at all, you get, it's trite journalism walking into a studio and ask you to pluck a figure out of the air and all the rest of it' (BBC Radio 5 Live, 23 November 2017).
o 'The point I'm trying to get at is we do not want figures banded around about future investment, interest rates at a later date, that will then be used to frighten people off from properly supporting investment' (Peston on Sunday, 26 November).
o 'Because the debate is about whether or not it is cost-effective. And you know as well as I do soon as any figures bandied about...'
o 'No, no. There isn't a big hole in it... What we're saying is bring it into public ownership, it will be managed more effectively. It will pay for itself' (Paterson on Sunday, 3 December 2017).
o 'Cost us zero'
o 'It's impossible to say'
o 'You can't put a figure on that at the moment'
o 'You can't say... It will cost what it costs'
o 'It works through'
o 'People are getting ripped off' (no response)
o 'It's not difficult'
o 'You've got to get it right... it's impossible... the basic principle is utterly sound' (BBC Daily Politics, 6 December 2017).
The success of the Blue Planet series reminded me of the enormous amount of work we are doing to lead the way in making our oceans safe and to protect the creatures that inhabit them.
For example we are banning microbeads and looking at how a return scheme for plastic bottles might work. This will have a big impact on marine life. Extending the Blue Belt alone will protect about 150,000 rare seabirds.
As the chairman of Natural England, Andrew Sells, has said "Extending the Blue Belt gives vital new protection to some of our most precious coastal wildlife."
There have been questions over the planning challenges at the Thames Farm Site between Henley and Shiplake. Let me try to explain the issues for those who have been unable to read the judgements and decisions or the original submissions. This is both a national and a local issue.
A key and crucial measure in planning and development is the 5 year housing land supply (5YHLS). This is a measure which assesses whether or not the Local Planning Authority has set aside sufficient land to provide for planned housing in its area. Where an area is covered by a Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) the requirement is for a 3YHLS. Using accepted methodology, SODC can demonstrate a 4.1 year housing land supply. This means that where there is no NDP developers may be given permission on land not in a strategic plan, but, where there is an NDP the plan which the community has developed should be adhered to.
In the case of Thames Farm, the Planning Inspector came to the conclusion that SODC did not even have a 3 YHLS. As the site is in the area covered by the Henley and Harpsden Joint NDP (HHJNDP) this judgement and its divergence from the recognised figure is important as it seemingly undermines the HHJNDP. Hence the challenge to the Planning Inspectors decision.
Since the time of the Thames Farm decision, there have been two other appeals heard by two different Planning Inspectors and each has concluded that SODC does have a 4.1 YHLS.
Hence there is concern over the inconsistency of the decisions made by different Planning Inspectors. This is rightly being challenged through the legal system by SODC. I have also raised it with the Secretary of State and the Chief Planning Officer and in other ways. Both are taking these concerns seriously and investigating on a wider basis.
On the issue of affordable housing, when people say they want 'affordable' housing most often they mean low cost market housing to allow people to get onto the housing ladder. It is important to distinguish between this and social housing where residents are tenants of a Housing Association rather than home owners. There is, of course, some need for social housing but in this area there is greater demand for low cost market housing.
The National Planning Policy Framework sets the requirement for planning authorities to deliver a housing mix to need the local demographic need. It is the responsibility of the District Council to set the target numbers of affordable housing that can be built and to work with developers to deliver that as far as possible. It is not the responsibility of the MP. However, I have argued in Parliament that Neighbourhood Development Plans should have a defining say in the type of houses built not just the location. Such views are being looked at now and can't come soon enough.
We have a Plan-led Planning System which means that you cannot simply build what you want, where you want. Affordable housing has to be part of the whole mix. There is a strong role for younger people to get involved in a Neighbourhood Plan production group and make a contribution to the debate to ensure that their needs and views are heard and included in local planning.
Applications outside of the planning system makes a total mockery of the system and especially of local participation. This is why these issues are so important and we must have clarity and consistency.