It’s been a busy few weeks in Westminster as the Autumn Parliamentary session gets ino full swing. Meanwhile it’s colder outside and winter is moving in, and bringing with it the usual problems on the roads and rails.
The situation at Dawlish has once again made headlines as the readiness of the railway to weather the winter is about to be tested, although fortunately no structural damage to the repaired section was found. Colder temperatures also mean that it’s time to start thinking about heating bills and preparing homes in order to keep them warm over the coming months. There has also been good news though, with further falls in unemployment in Torbay.
Connecting the South West
On 4th November, I helped to organise a meeting in Parliament between various South West MPs, regional business leaders and Council groups. We were joined by Lib Dem minsters Danny Alexander from the Treasury, Business Secretary Vince Cable and transport minister Susan Kramer. The aim of the meeting was to highlight the very real connectivity problems which the South West continues to suffer from, in terms of road and rail, and services such as broadband, when faced with bad weather, low investment and a lack of Government attention.
The Peninsular Rail Task Force Group, who have been pushing for more investment in the region have created a three-point plan to improve rail journey times, reduce delays and make rail travel more comfortable, including £350 million to help protect Dawlish. We’re also hoping to improve investment in the A303.
The meeting was certainly a positive one. It’s always good to see the South West MPs join together to support the region, and it was great to have a good turnout from local groups and businesses. There have been noises from the Treasury about a £7 billion investment in the far South West’s railways. This may be a bit too much to hope for, but there should be a substantial commitment to the region’s rail and road links in the upcoming Autumn Budget Statement on December 3rd. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.
A Fair Deal For Local Pubs
Last week, I joined colleagues in signing an amendment to the Small Business Bill which will help deliver a fair deal for local pub company pubs, including here in Torbay. With support from across the house, the amendment passed – defeating the Government 284 votes to 269. It will help allow pub tenants tied to the large pub companies (more than 500 pubs) to opt for a rental only deal, allowing them to buy beer on the open market at prices up to 70% below what pub companies currently force them to pay.
It is a fantastic victory for pub landlords who are now free from the ‘beer tie’ system which arguably led to the closure of many pubs across the UK. The amendment now gives tenants of large pub companies the right to ask for an independent assessment of their rent without tie obligations. The tenants then have the option to pay this to the large pub companies, or to opt for a fair tied agreement in which lower rent would be offered in exchange for higher beer prices. The amendment will therefore benefit beer drinkers, as pub landlords will be able to buy beer on the open market, saving them up to 60p per pint.
Ten Years of the Hunting Ban
This week marks a significant milestone for animal welfare. It’s a decade since Parliament passed the 2004 Hunting with Hounds Act, which outlawed the killing of foxes, hares, mink and deer by dogs.
Despite the passage of time, there are still some who want to repeal the legislation. It seems strange that we have to have this discussion in 2014, yet it was only earlier this year some MPs attempted to amend the act to render it unenforceable by allowing hunters to flush out and kill a wild animal using an unlimited number of hounds.
Fortunately, the Government had to abandon its plans when my Liberal Democrat parliamentary colleagues refused to support the changes. However, it proves the act is still under threat, and at some stage Parliament may well be asked to vote for its repeal. As we approach the anniversary, we will no doubt hear protests from the pro-hunting lobby as to why hunting with hounds should be brought back. It is worth quickly examining, and debunking, many of their arguments. Despite claims that the Act would be unenforceable, it has actually proven to be the most successful piece of wild mammal legislation on the statute books. Ministry of Justice figures have shown it has both the highest number of convictions since 2005 when it was introduced (341 from 2005 to 2013) and 65 per cent of charges under the act have resulted in convictions.
Many hunters argue the act has taken away their ability to “manage” the countryside, and that hunting was a humane way of “pest control”. Nothing could be further from the truth. When hunting was banned during the foot and mouth outbreak, evidence showed no significant effect on fox numbers and research has consistently shown the fox population has remained stable over a long period, both with and without hunting. If we’re honest with each other, traditional hunting was never about pest control, but killing for pleasure.
What of the argument that the ban brought to an end an old countryside tradition? Let’s not forget that bear baiting and cock fighting were once traditions, but we moved on from those barbaric activities.
Most people seem settled on their support for the act and would be appalled to think, at a time when we should be tackling the many issues and challenges that really matter, Parliament was focused on trying to bring back an activity many find obscene. The fact is the Hunting Act works and is popular. Instead of contemplating its repeal, we should celebrate and build on its success in saving our wild mammals from needless cruelty.
A New Swimming Charter Making A Splash
Swimming isn’t just a fun leisure activity or a way for young people to keep healthy, it’s more than that. It’s a life-saving skill that every child has the right to learn, enjoy and be able to practice confidently”
New statistics have revealed that 45 per cent of 7-11 year olds are unable to swim 25 metres unaided. Nearly 1300 primary schools don’t teach swimming in Key Stage 2, even though it’s on the curriculum, and even at schools that do teach swimming, the average time spent by pupils in the pool was just 10 hours, less than half the recommended amount for learning how to swim.
So I joined with Olympic swimmer Duncan Goodhew (pictured above) to back the new School Swimming Charter from the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) aimed at boosting the number of primary school children that can swim and know how to be safe in and around water. The Charter aims to ensure every primary school in England has the necessary knowledge and resources required to deliver high quality school swimming programmes.
Drowning is the third highest cause of accidental death in children in the UK, and research suggests that if children do not learn to swim at primary school they will become one of the one in five adults in the UK that are unable to swim. We need to make sure that all local primary schools are doing everything they can to increase the number of people leaving primary school able to swim.
Getting Ready for Winter
As winter rolls around again, it’s good to be prepared and to take advantage of free help that’s available to help with energy bills. There are a number of simple steps that everyone should take to keep their bills down and their home warm. Being energy efficient and keeping bills under control is important so it’s well worth getting in touch with your energy supplier to find out what support is on offer.
There are a number of things you can do to save money.
Insulate your home
British Gas is currently offering free loft and cavity wall insulation which is available to 90% of homes that need it. Loft insulation can save up to £145 and cavity wall insulation can save up to £150 per year. To find out more you can call free on 0800 316 4051 or visit britishgas.co.uk/insulation
Get the best deal
Make sure you are on the best gas and electricity tariff for you. There are lots of deals and fixed prices to help you control your costs. British Gas tells customers in every bill if we have a better tariff for them. It also offers flexible payment plans which allow customers the opportunity to set and manage their own payments. Anyone worried about their bill can call 0800 048 0202 to discuss the help available.
You may be entitled to extra support from the Government and your energy supplier if you meet certain criteria – The Warm Home Discount – a one off discount of £135 on the electricity bill, rising to £140 this year. British Gas has the broadest eligibility criteria of all energy suppliers. British Gas customers should call 0800 072 8625.
British Gas Energy Trust
The British Gas Energy Trust is an independent charitable trust that offers advice and support if you’re struggling with your household bills. Over the last decade British Gas has provided it with more than £75 million to help 120,000 people with grants and debt advice.
British Gas has teamed up with 18 debt centres across the UK to fund support workers to help people apply for a grant and provide face-to-face advice. You don’t even need to be a British Gas customer to apply. For more information on the British Gas Energy Trust, visit: britishgasenergytrust.org.uk