Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Newspaper column 9 September 2020 - Extinction Rebellion's attempt to stifle the press

 

The ‘cancel culture’ – which seeks to shut down views and voices that don’t subscribe to a particular, narrow, political agenda, took another concerning twist this weekend when Extinction Rebellion blockaded several newspaper print factories in order to prevent them from being printed and distributed.

The fact that it was only some newspapers, and not those who generally support a more left-wing political view, shows once again what the thinly veiled agenda is behind this campaign.

This latest stunt in the undemocratic campaign to bring down capitalism should be a cause for concern for many reasons.

Firstly, it is illegal, and I was pleased to read that the Police did actually take action and there were 58 arrests of those who were protesting. To seek to prevent companies from going about their lawful business in this way should never be accepted in an open and democratic society. It is worth noting that by preventing newspapers from being printed and distributed it is not just the owners of the papers that pay the cost. It is also thousands of businesses across the country, many of which are small family businesses such as newspapers and convenience stores, who stock and sell these papers who would have felt the consequences. At a time when many of our businesses are struggling to recover from the lockdown this type of action is the last thing they and our economy needs.

But probably more serious is the blatant attempt to shut down those who do not concur with the narrow and extreme agenda of Extinction Rebellion. A free press is one of the hallmarks of freedom of speech that is the foundation of our democracy. Listening to opposing views is a healthy part of any open democratic society. As the saying goes you do not win a debate by stopping debate from taking place.

When it comes to the issue of climate change and protecting our environment, we have been having a significant and constructive debate in this country now for many years. That debate needs to be allowed to continue. The issue is too important to be shut down now. But we also have to accept it is a very complex matter with a wide variety of views and opinions. Seeking to shut it down, particularly at this point in time, is the last thing we need to do.

The irony is now, that just at a point when we are making real advances in action being taken to limit and prevent climate change, those who claim to be the most focused, committed and vocal on the matter are in danger of being the ones doing the most harm to progress.

When Extinction Rebellion began their direct-action protest last year it was clear there was a fair degree of sympathy and support for their cause. People may not have completely agreed with all of their actions but there was a general acceptance that their cause was just.

However, as they have continued their protests and escalated their actions it is clear from my post bag that they are losing much of the good will they may have initially attracted. This latest action at the weekend appears to have lost them even more support. Even some leading politicians from parties who are known to be in support of more action to fight climate change are now saying these latest stunts by Extinction Rebellion are undermining the cause and counter-productive.

There is a fine balance between allowing protest to happen whilst remaining legal and respecting the views of others. Many people, and our society as a whole, has been on a journey in recent years and it is clear the general direction of travel has been towards a greater understanding of the importance of protecting our environment, and a greater acceptance that more needs to be done to reduce emissions and prevent further harm to our environment.

This government has taken more action than any other to put in place legislation to cut our carbon emissions, reduce pollution including things such as plastic waste and promote clean energy and sustainable growth. Yes, more needs to be done and more will be done. But as in any significant change the government, and politicians in general, have to take the public with them. That is where our democratic mandate for the action required will come from.  

The vast majority of people I engage with now accept that we need to take more action to reduce pollution and the impact of climate change. My concern is that the actions of a few extremists is now damaging the cause they say they are fighting for. It is becoming more and more clear to me that their consistent criminality and disruption of the lives of law-abiding businesses and hard working people is losing them the support of much of the public. Support we are going to need if we are to make further progress.

 

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Newspaper column 26 August 2020 - returning to school

The controversy around exams results of the past few weeks have brought into sharp focus the consequences of closing our schools and not being able to get pupils back to the classroom.

Firstly, while I have a number of concerns about the long term impact of the decision to award all pupils the higher of their Centre Assessed Grades or those moderated by the OFQUAL, it was clear that in the circumstances it was the only right decision to make. Too many pupils were adversely affected, and we needed to end the uncertainty for our young people.

It is well established that teacher assessed grades are often, on average, higher than the grades pupils achieve in actual exams. There are very genuine and understandable reasons for this as teachers will predict grades that pupils are capable of achieving which is not always the same as what is actually achieved.

While there is a reasonable argument that the Department for Education and OFQUAL could have handled this situation much better, the reality of the situation is that once exams were cancelled there was no easy way to deal with awarding grades and where we have ended up is probably the least worse outcome.

But all this should bring home to us just how important it will be to see all our schools open next month and all pupils return to the classroom. Too much time has already been lost and it is vital our children are able to recommence their education. It was pleasing to see at the weekend that England’s Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, confirm that in his expert view it is safe for schools to reopen. In fact, he went as far as to say that not returning to school is likely to cause more long-term damage to children than the risks of Covid-19.

I know our local schools have already been working hard to ensure this can happen. I recently wrote to all our local schools asking them to confirm what their plans are for September and I am pleased to say all those who have replied to date have plans in place to ensure they are able to welcome all pupils back.  I want to say a big thank you to all our headteachers, teachers and school staff for all they are doing.

It is one of the government’s top priorities that schools fully open at the beginning of September and all pupils are able to return and I will certainly be doing all I can to support our local schools to achieve this.

If any parents of school children have any particular concerns or questions about their children returning to school, please do contact your school. My office is also available to assist and answer any questions you may have, so please do get in touch if you feel I can help.

We have also had some very good news with regards to school funding in recent weeks with the announcement that spending on schools nationally will increase by £4.8billion next year. Further good news is that our local schools will be receiving an above average increase which will continue to close the funding gap Cornish schools have been facing for many years now. It is good to see that our continual campaigning on funding for our schools is paying off and this government’s commitment to ‘level up’ education is happening.

Overall funding for schools in our constituency will increase by 5.9% next year, well above inflation, rising to more that £69million. Some of our smaller rural schools will be allocated much larger increases with some receiving over 12% more. As always these are indicative allocations and the final sums received by schools will depend on how Cornwall Council apply the new budget. I certainly hope that they will ensure all our schools receive the uplift in funding allocated to them in full.

My team and I are here to serve the whole constituency and work hard to make a real difference to the lives of everyone needing support. The office is open to the public Monday – Friday 10.00am – 4.00pm. If there is an issue you would like my assistance with then please contact me on either 01726 829379 or office@stevedouble.org.uk. Additionally, I will be recommencing regular, appointment only, advice surgeries from next month. Do get in touch if you would like an appointment to see me.

 

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Newspaper column 12 August 2020 - Investment in Cornwall

 

The latest figures which were released at the end of last week show the level of government support through the COVID-19 pandemic for businesses and jobs in our constituency. The economic shock has impacted just about every part of our local economy and as we begin the long road to recovery, it is good to reflect on the support so far that has protected thousands of jobs and hundreds of businesses.

Treasury figures show that 17,600 employees have been furloughed with the government funding 80% of workers’ wages – estimated at a total of around £145milllion from March – August.

5,700 self-employed people have received the self-employed income support scheme which has put over £16million into the bank accounts of local people.

Almost 1,900 businesses in St Austell and Newquay have received government backed loans through the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme or Bounce Back Loans totalling almost £50million. Three thousand six hundred businesses have received grants and further 1,200 are having their businesses rates bills cancelled until April next year.

This is an unprecedented intervention by the government to support businesses and project jobs and our constituency has received one of the highest levels of support of any across the country.

This is all on top of the specific measures taken to support the tourism and hospitality sector, which our constituency relies on more heavily than any in the country through the VAT cut and Eat Out to Help Out Scheme.

Whilst I am very much aware that there will be those individuals and businesses who will have fallen through the gaps and not able to access the various support schemes, there is no doubt that we would be facing a much bigger challenge locally if these schemes had not been in place. The Chancellor has always been open and honest that we will not be able to save every job or protect every business. I continue to make representations to government ministers for further support both for those who have so far not received any support and also for our vital hospitality businesses who will face further challenges as the season ends.

Sadly, there will be those who lose their jobs and businesses who will not survive this crisis. The government is already taking steps to invest in job creation and training to ensure any recession and increase in unemployment is as short as possible.

It is important we make the most of what is left of this season. I do understand the concerns some people have of the risk of welcoming tourists to Cornwall at this time. However, all the evidence to date shows that there has been very little impact on the level of cases of Coronavirus in Cornwall since tourists were allowed to come. Last week saw a reported 9 new cases in Cornwall – among the lowest of any week so far – and this is with increased levels of testing available. There have been no new cases of people falling seriously ill and requiring hospital care. Whilst there is no room for complacency and we must all continue to keep to the restrictions and guidance, we can take some confidence from the fact that to date the increase in cases some feared is not materialising.

Whilst there have been a few notable spikes in a few parts of the country, the overall trend nationally continues to show the downward trend in the number of cases.

Our traditional sectors of tourism, hospitality and food production will always be the bedrock of our Cornish economy. These are our strengths and we should continue to make the most of them. But one things the events of recent months have highlighted again is the need to reduce our reliance on these sectors, which can level our economy vulnerable, and invest in other new sectors that will create jobs and attract inward investment.

Last week we received more good news in the confirmation that the government will be investing in a number of ‘shovel-ready’ projects in Cornwall that will go some way to achieving this. Funding was announced that includes support for projects in the space industry in Cornwall and lithium extraction as part of an overall £14million package. Possibly more than any other opportunities these two areas have the potential to change the profile of our local economy and create some exciting career opportunities for local people.    

So whilst I will always champion our amazing tourism and hospitality businesses and promote Cornwall as a great place to come on holiday, I will also continue to work to attracted the investment and government support we need to see in these other great opportunities for our county. 

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Newspaper column 29 July 2020 - ASB issues

One issue has dominated the news and social media in St Austell this past week – the rise of anti-social behaviour, drugs and crime in the town centre.

For many years now this has been an ongoing issue that tends to see an increase in the summer months. However, it was quite clear from the number of people who contacted me that there had been a significant increase in cases since the beginning of this month.

Having spoken to businesses representatives, local Police and the Town Council, it was clear to me that urgent action was needed, particularly as local businesses were already facing big challenges to draw people into the town following the easing of the lockdown restrictions. Therefore, I used my position as the local MP to call an urgent meeting last Thursday. Initially Cornwall Council declined to send any representatives to the meeting but after I pressed the point with them, they did eventually agree to join us by video link.

This is particularly frustrating as last summer we saw a noticeable improvement as a result of the hard work of local businesses, the Police and council working together. However, it does feel that all that good work has been undone in just a few weeks as a result of the number of people currently being housed in the town by Cornwall Council.

I have always been of the view that this issue needed a dual approach. We need to address the symptom by having a visible Police and security presence in the town. But we cannot just go on throwing resources at the symptoms, we also need to understand what the cause of the problem is and address them.  Whilst this is a complex matter and I do not pretend for a moment there are any simple long term answers, there is no doubt in my mind that more could be done to understand and take action to deal with the causes.

Whilst all towns have their problems with anti-social behaviour, it has been true for too long that St Austell has more than its share of challenges. It is undeniable that there are a significant number of facilities around the town that provide housing to those with complex needs and chaotic lifestyles. Recent figures produced have highlighted that St Austell has a higher number of supported accommodation beds commissioned by Cornwall Council than other comparable place in Cornwall.
This is something I have been working on for more than 3 years and in fact had a meeting with senior Cornwall Council officers planned for March, which unfortunately had to be cancelled due to the lockdown.

In calling the meeting last week my aim for to first agree some immediate action in order to ensure the current situation was improved quickly. But I also wanted to ensure steps were put in place to work to find longer term solutions.

I am pleased to report that the meeting went very well. I was very pleased with the way everyone from St Austell made a robust presentation to Cornwall Council of the challenges our town faces – including the Police, Town Council including the Mayor and Deputy, and those from the towns’ businesses community. We all agreed following the meeting that for the first time we felt as though Cornwall Council ‘got it’.

The local Police were able to confirm at the meeting that they would be increasing their presence in the town centre immediately and it was good to receive reports of several arrests that were made in the following few days. Also, the outreach services from the anti-social behaviour team agreed to increase their patrols. From my visits to the town in the days that followed it was clear that this had an immediate impact and the businesses I spoke to, reported a noticeable improvement.

However, I am also determined that we address the underlying causes of this issue. It was disappointing that still, after more than two years of me asking Cornwall Council the questions, they were unable to provide us with any figures as to how many people with complex needs, the various departments of Cornwall Council are currently housing in St Austell. Those at the meeting did however commit to provide me and the Town Council with this information in the near future.

This will be the first step to ensuring that St Austell is treated fairly by the council and that we can all work together to ensure we do not see a repeat of the events of the past few weeks. I am determined that this will now happen and will continue to work with the Town Council, Police and businesses to make sure it does. 

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Newspaper column 22 July 2020 - Toilets


As MPs one of our main roles is to legislate – to pass new laws and regulations that address the current and future needs of the country to improve the way we live. Most of the legislation we pass is initiated by the government which will mainly come from the Cabinet members.

However, occasional as a local backbench MP you are able to influence the government to pass legislation that they would not have ever considered without your input. Last week I had one of these opportunities.

The Public Lavatories (Non-Domestic rating) Bill will probably not go down as the most exciting or glamorous piece of legislation the House of Commons will debate in this Parliament. For me, however, it represented the culmination of an eight year personal mission.

It was in 2012 when I was the Cabinet Member on Cornwall Council with responsibility for public toilets that I first became aware of the fact that public toilets were liable for non-domestic rates, or business rates.

At that time Cornwall Council were seeking to devolve the running of toilets from the Unitary Council to Town and Parish Councils and it was one of my duties to try to enable this to happen. I quickly found that one of the biggest elements of the cost of running public toilets was business rates. This was a barrier to parish councils taking on these facilities.

In a place like Cornwall public toilets are essential for locals and tourists unlike as well as being vital for elderly people or those with health conditions that mean they need regular access to toilets. Therefore, at that time I wrote to the then Secretary of State and suggested that toilets should be made exempt from rates. He agreed and said the government would look into this.

Three years later in 2015 when I was first elected as MP, I raised this with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, when he visited Cornwall. In one of those odd coincidences, this conversation took place on 16th July 2015, precisely fives years to the day that the bill to enable this to happen passed its first stages in the Commons, last Thursday.

It has been frustrating over the past three years that we have not been able to find the time to put this legislation to Parliament. With the turmoil of all that has gone in that time – General Elections, Brexit, hung Parliaments, and of course the pandemic of recent months, it was good to eventually get to debate and vote this bill through.

It was quite fulfilling, that after eight years I was able to speak about my reasons for wanting this legislation passed and to feel that I had played a significant part in making this change happen. It will save our local Town Councils tens of thousands of pounds every year, and even for many of our smaller Parish Councils the savings will be a significant part of their annual expenditure. The bill also allows for this exemption to be back dated to last April which will mean these savings will apply to the current year which I know will be very welcome.

I have always been a big supporter of our local councils which within the context of local government in Cornwall play an increasingly important role in serving the communities they represent. They have of course also played a key role in recent months in supporting their communities through the pandemic and lockdown. Providing vital local support, especially to elderly and vulnerable people.
Many of them have seen their costs increase whilst some have lost income through not having revenue from car parks and other sources. One thing I have been highlighting recently is that the government has made money available to support the Town and Parish Councils in Cornwall. This money has been part of the almost £40million that the government has granted to Cornwall Council and Ministers have been very clear that they expect Cornwall Council to pass some of this on to Parish Councils to ensure they are not in financial difficulties.

Sadly, so far Cornwall Council have refused to make any funding available to our local councils. Just this last week Cornwall Council have received a further £5million from the government and I hope that they will now make some of this funding available to Town and Parish Councils across Cornwall who are in urgent need of additional support.



















Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Newspaper column 15 July 2020 - Police, tax cuts and COVID-19


It does feel, at the moment, as though every week there is a great deal happening that I could write about – and this week is no different.

Away from COVID-19, I was able to lead a debate in Parliament last week highlighting the work of Devon and Cornwall Police. I was able to place on record my thanks, and the thanks of many of us, for the proactive and pragmatic approach they have taken to Policing over the period of the lockdown. It was also an opportunity to present the unique set of challenges our Police face in the far South West – from our geography being a peninsula, the many rural and coastal communities covered by the force, as well as the length of our minor road network. Of course, we also face the biggest seasonal influx of tourists of any UK Police Force with the additional demands this places on our local officers.

I was told this was the first time these challenges were presented to Ministers in such a comprehensive way and it gave me the opportunity to make the case for additional funding for D&C Police.

Once again it was a significant week in our progress against the Coronavirus. We saw further easing of the restrictions and more announced for the coming weeks which will allow more businesses to open. As we see the numbers of infections, hospitalisations and deaths continue to fall it is right we allow the economy to open up, whilst of course continuing to keep to the guidance on social distancing, hand washing and avoiding large gatherings.

The biggest news was of course the Chancellors financial statement on Wednesday which laid out further measures to support jobs and businesses as we begin the process of rebuilding the economy. One thing I particularly like about Rishi Sunak as Chancellor is that he does not hide the challenges we face nor that every decision and economic measure taken will have both ups and downs. There is no doubt we are in for some tough times in the coming months and possibly years. Avoiding job losses are unavoidable following the sudden shock to the economy caused by the outbreak of the virus and the lockdown that was necessary to control it. But the measures announced this week are aimed at lessening the impact as far as we can, seeking to save jobs and enable businesses to get through the coming months. Of course, at some point all this money will have to be found and repaid but that is for another day. Right now, the focus is rightly on saving as many businesses and jobs as we can.

Particularly welcome to hundreds of businesses in our constituency will be the cut in VAT for hospitality and tourism to 5%. This was something I know the sector had been calling for and it was good that the Chancellor had clearly been listening. This measure is aimed at supporting businesses and help them to increase their margins through the next 9 months. I know that some people are now expecting to see a cut in the cost of their holiday or price of a meal out but I think we need to appreciate this is not what the cut is aimed at. These businesses have lost 4 months of income in what would have been some of the busiest weeks of the year and this additional income, that they can keep rather than pay to the government, will be a big help to enabling them to make it through this winter.
The other headline grabbing announcement was the cut in stamp duty which will benefit anyone looking to buy a house until the end of March. The housing market is a key part of the economy that supports many other businesses in the supply chain from construction, trades, estate agents, home improvements, new appliances and furniture and DIY –  all are dependant on a thriving housing market. So, this step will do far more than just help people buying properties.

Along with the job retention bonus that will be paid to businesses who bring people back from furlough and keep them in jobs, the Eat Out to Help Out scheme that will encourage us all to go out to eat in August or the Kick Start programme to help young people into work, there was lots of support for businesses and jobs which is going to be crucial.

We should not be in any doubt as to the big challenges ahead of us to recover our economy. We will all have a part to play in the coming months but it was very good to see the Chancellor stepping up and playing his part.

As always my office staff and I are here to help and if any constituents have any questions or concerns about the announcements this week or any aspect of the impact of the COVID-19 crisis please do not hesitate to get in touch. You can email me of office@stevedouble.org.uk or call 01726 829379.   

Wednesday, 8 July 2020

Newspaper column 8 July 2020 - Tourism and new 111 Pilot


After a great deal of anticipation, by all accounts, the past weekend passed smoothly. Pubs, cafes, restaurants and holiday accommodation were all able to open.

I spent a large part of Saturday visiting local businesses who were opening for the first time. A big well done should go to everyone who worked hard to be ready to open with measures in place to keep us all safe. I saw mostly local people taking the chance to get out and enjoy themselves, all of whom were following the guidance and behaving very responsibly.

Although we did see some tourists arriving for a holiday, the great influx, many were predicting, does not appear to have happened. The A30 was not particularly any busier than it has been in recent weeks. Some pictures of queues of traffic did appear on social media but these were the result of one of a number of accidents that caused congestion. Holiday parks did report tourists arriving but not in the numbers that had been predicted.

The local police reported a fairly peaceful time with very few incidents. So, a big well done to everyone who behaved responsibly and continues to follow the guidance.

This weekend also saw another significant development in our local health services. I know for many people one of the big concerns of opening up to tourists will be the pressure this could place on our NHS in Cornwall. This is why I was delighted that Cornwall was chosen to be one of the first places the new enhanced NHS 111 service would be piloted.

One of the things I have seen in my role as PPS in the Department for Health has been the way the NHS has adapted during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the new ways the NHS has worked to cope with this pandemic have taught us some important lessons about how the health service can work more efficiently in more normal times. Also, changes that have been planned to be introduced over the next few years have been accelerated and can now be made.

The new NHS 111 service is designed to make better use of the current 111 service and direct people needing medical advice or treatment to the most appropriate part of the NHS. This will save time of patients having to wait to see a doctor only to be then redirected to a different part of the NHS.

From now on, anyone wanting to access the NHS, for anything other than a 999 emergency, will be guided to call NHS 111 first. You will then be able to discuss your concerns with a trained member of staff who will then direct you to the appropriate service – whether that is your GP, Minor Injuries, your local Pharmacy or A&E. If you are directed to attend a hospital, or your GP, an appointment will be made for you which will save you having to just show up and wait.

Additionally, better use of GPs across the country will be made. One of the things we have seen in recent months has been GPs making better use of video and phone calls in order to hold consultations with patients. This is a much more efficient use of GP’s time. Most of the time it is not necessary to have a face to face appointment with your GP who can very often diagnose the treatment you may require on the phone of via a video call. Of course, if you do then need a face to face appointment this can be arranged much more quickly.

One benefit of this is that you can ‘see’ your own GP wherever you are in the country. The significance of this for us in Cornwall is that any visitors who call NHS 111 and are directed to see a GP will be put in touch with their own GP in their home town via a video call. This will take pressure off local GPs in Cornwall as tourists will only be guided to see them if a face to face appointment is absolutely necessary.

This is a very welcome new development in the way health services are accessed and I believe will have great benefits for us here in Cornwall in relieving much of the pressure we often experience in the holiday season. You can read more about this service here https://www.england.nhs.uk/urgent-emergency-care/nhs-111/next-steps-for-nhs-111/

So, from now on if you need medical help or advice and it is not an emergency you should call NHS 111 first for a more efficient service.