Following hard on the heels of a new Wokingham Station, the Highways Agency visited us last week to start their consultation on an improved M4. I went along to talk to them. I wanted to stress the need to take more action to cut down the motorway noise which afflicts people living in Winnersh, Earley and the other settlements near to the motorway.
The government’s scheme is to convert the current hard shoulder from Junction 3 to Junction 12 into an additional traffic lane. Pull in areas will be created along the length of the motorway to allow any vehicle in distress to pull off the highway. If a car cannot even make it to the next pull in this will be picked up by the motorway controllers and that lane will be closed with appropriate warnings and speed restrictions. This system is currently operating successfully elsewhere on motorways that have already been converted to this “smart motorway” model.
The new motorway will have the facility for lower speed limits to be introduced if this would help the smooth running of traffic on a very congested road, or if there is a hazard. There will have to be new bridges along the length of the expanded motorway to cope with the extra lane.
I have made two proposals to the Highways Agency to help with the noise problem. The first is that when they resurface the road they should use a noise reducing compound. The second is they should install more barriers near to housing to baffle the sound. The Agency promised to investigate this need and report on it as part of their response to consultation.
As I said I thought this was widely wanted, it would be a good idea if more people would make this point during the consultation or would write in to reinforce it. The address of the Agency is The Highways Agency, The Cube, 199 Wharfside Streeet, Birmingham B1 1RN. The email for this consultation is M4J3to12SmartMotorways@highways.gsi.gov.uk.
I also urged them to minimise inconvenience to existing road users when doing the replacement bridges. They said they would investigate building a new bridge alongside the old one, so it can continue in use. They also said they would consider limiting off peak motorway closures to drop new bridges in by seeking to do more than one at a time.
The last few days have seen Parliament preoccupied by events in the Ukraine. Those of us fresh from telling the government to stay out of the Syrian civil war have been urging the government to avoid military commitment close to the Russian border.
Ukraine is a very split and divided country. The EU encouraged rebels to overthrow the elected President from the east of the country, to move policy away from Russian connections to a pro EU direction. When they succeeded their new interim government immediately pushed through legislation to ban Russian as an official language. The new government in so doing alienated parts of the east, especially the Crimea. Mr Putin claimed he was invited to protect the Russian majority in the Crimea, and sent in troops to take control without a shot being fired.
As far as the west is concerned the new interim unelected government is legitimate because the elected President fled the country and the elected parliament chose the new government. The west believes Mr Putin has violated Ukrainian sovereignty and should withdraw his troops. To the east, Mr Putin sent in troops at the legal request of the elected President and the local government in Crimea, and stands ready to protect the interests of the Russian majority in Crimea who are but a minority in Ukraine.
There is no way the west can put right the troubles of Ukraine by military intervention. The west has to negotiate with the Ukrainian government, the Crimean government and M r Putin to try to find a peaceful solution to the clash of interests and conflicting legal claims. The US is raising the issue of whether trade and economic sanctions should be used. The EU is correctly reluctant. One of the Ukraine’s biggest problems is a weak economy with too much debt. Russia and the west should seek to collaborate on solving that, rather than trying to wound each other by economic sanctions. If Russia makes further military moves that are illegal then there may need to be retaliation against named individuals in Russia, attacking their freedom to travel and their overseas assets.
Last week the government put through its Immigration Bill. This piece of legislation will help control the numbers of people coming to settle in the UK, as most agree we need to continue to reduce the number of newcomers. Councils and the NHS are finding it difficult keep up with all the extra demand for homes, healthcare and education. The new law will reduce the number of appeals an individual can undertake against a Borders decision. It will also ask visitors to contribute to the NHS whilst they are here.
Backbench Conservative MPs welcomed and supported this legislation. Three also raised other issues which they wanted the Bill to consider. My neighbour, Philip Lee of Bracknell wanted health screening for new arrivals. Dominic Raab wanted to reduce the use of the right to a family life by people convicted of serious offences who want to stay in the UK afterwards though they are not UK citizens born here. Nigel Mills wanted to re-open the question of the ending of restrictions on new arrivals from Bulgaria and Romania.
None of these backbench proposals found favour with Liberal Democrat members of the government. They used their veto to prevent the government supporting any of them. The amendments by Dr Lee and Mr Mills were not reached during the relatively short period allowed by the government for further debate of the Bill, so we will never know how many Conservatives might have rebelled. These amendments would anyway have been lost, with Labour and the Liberal Democrats against.
Dominic Raab’s amendment was debated and voted on. I supported him, as I agreed with him that the UK authorities and courts should have more power to remove serious foreign criminals from the UK where necessary, without the European Convention on Human Rights being stretched to give them the right to remain here. Conservative backbench MPs were given a free vote on this topic. So we were not as is commonly reported rebelling. Conservative Ministers were whipped to abstain, with the Prime Minister expressing sympathy with the intention behind Mr Raab’s amendment.
Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs combined to vote down Mr Raab’s amendment. As a result useful improvements will survive in the Immigration Bill, but violent foreign criminals who have been found guilty of serious crime in the UK will still b e able to claim a right to family life in the UK .
95 MPs sent the Prime Minister a letter about the EU. We did so, not as rebels, but as Conservatives keen to build on the PM’s policy of renegotiating our relationship with the EU and then offering all of us a vote on the results. The British people will decide whether to stay in or leave.
The immediate reason for the letter was the publication of a very important European Affairs Select Committee report . This unanimous piece of work, agreed by members of all the parties on the Committee, proposed that in future the UK should reserve the right to decline to implement a European measure, or to repeal an existing one, where it is not in the UK’s national interest.
This would strengthen our bargaining hand when it comes to renegotiation that we have taken this power. It would mimic the German position. Germany reserves the right not to implement European matters where they are at variance with her constitution. Disputes are settled by the German constitutional court. The UK equivalent is the supremacy of Parliament, and the decision of Parliament in a few crucial cases to assert our rights.
Some say you could not have a working EU if countries take this line. We know that is untrue, because Germany already practises this. We used to belong to the EEC and then the EU whilst preserving a European version of the veto called the Luxembourg Compromise. This was first deployed by France, and was a useful way of protecting the national interest if all else had failed in the discussion with other member states.
We 95 have merely urged the government to respond positively to the Committee Report. If they do so they will have a stronger negotiating hand. They will also please the majority of the UK people, who clearly want Brussels to govern us less and Parliament more. We need to sort out dear energy, borders and criminal justice matters with more input at home.
The government is keen to help people own their own home. They are improving the discounts available for those who want to buy their Council house. They have launched a scheme to provide a guarantee for extra mortgage borrowing for people who do not have a large deposit to put down. This means that you can buy a home with a cash deposit of 5% of the total value, rather than having to save up 25% of the cost of the house.
As always such schemes bring their critics. We hear the old argument that if someone buys a Council house there is one less house available. That is nonsense, as the same family stays living in the same house. The difference is that family will not have to pay rent in their old age, when the mortgage is paid off. Meanwhile the Council has a sum of money from the sale to help it provide more housing.
We hear the new argument that helping people with the deposit is irresponsible, as it will boost house prices and put them into too much debt. This is a misunderstanding of the scheme. The bank or Building Society offering the mortgage still has to make the appropriate checks on income and capacity to pay the interest. Of course people taking out mortgages should think about what happens if interest rates go up in due course. We are going to need more houses in our country, and that means we need people able to afford to buy the new homes currently being built so builders will think it worthwhile building some more. House prices are still below the peak levels they reached in boom of 2007, when the banks were allowed to lend too much and fuel too big a house price explosion.
There are many people living in rented accommodation who would like to own their own home. Doing so gives you much more freedom over how to improve and decorate your property. It lifts from you the fear of paying the rent in your old age. There are not many people in their own home who want to rent, and little stopping them from doing so if they wish. I hope more of my constituents will be able to afford to buy their own home. It is an important change in many people’s lives, and gives people more freedom once they have managed it.
It is good news that unemployment is falling and many more jobs are being generated all round the country. Here in Wokingham unemployment is at a very low level, and there are jobs available.
The government’s critics ask how can they claim the economy is improving when families are struggling with the family budget, and when some people visit foodbanks to accept the offer of help with some free food? We had a debate on just this topic last week in the Commons as it is one of Labour’s campaigns.
None of us want people to be in poverty. All the main political parties wish to see living standards rising, and wish to help those in need. That is why successive Parliaments have voted through a complex and substantial welfare system to provide additional income, assistance with housing, help with heating and other measures to try to ensure everyone can have the basics.
Foodbanks developed rapidly during and after the Great Recession at the end of the last decade. The Labour government did not encourage them. The Coalition on arriving in office thought it a good idea to add the foodbank to the list of many ways, state and private, that people can get help when they are in need. Partly owing to this official referral, foodbanks have continued to develop.
The best way out of poverty is to get a job. Many are now thankfully completing that journey from reliance on benefits to earning some income. Some people in work do not earn enough for their spending. They need help with finding the extra hours of work or the better paid job that bring income and outgoings into line, or they need help with their budgets. There are income top ups from the state for many in low paid work. Tax thresholds have been raised substantially so people on low incomes no longer have to pay any income tax. This is one popular policy which both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have been keen to back. Council tax rises have been restrained, and now action is going to be taken to cut energy bills by £50.
Government, and charities, can always do more to help. We can all do more to help. People get into budget stress for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it needs drug or alcohol treatment, sometimes assistance with training and finding a better job, sometimes low incomes just need topping up one way or another. There is no wish by any MP or party I know to see poverty on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. This government, like those before it, has a huge and expensive anti poverty programme. I am sure it can be improved, and that is what we will continue to strive to do next year.
Over the last week the collapse of the Co-op bank and the reverberations surrounding its former Chairman have filled the air at Westminster. It has brought home two sad truths. Ethical mutuals may not be all they are cracked up to be. Co-op bondholders are learning an expensive lesson as they face losses and a capital reconstruction. Regulations, now stronger, statutory and enforced by Labour then by the Coalition still may not stop error, incompetence, bad appointments, or worse.
Under the last Conservative government I had the Ministerial job of being the City Regulator. In those days the non banks were regulated by the DTI, now the Business Department, under the supervision of a Minister. The law said anyone operating a regulated financial business had to be “ fit and proper”. Today many more people, many of them much better paid, are now involved in regulating. The Minister is no longer in charge, but an independent Regulator with an expensive Board and Chief Executive. There are many more rules to enforce, and more people to enforce them. Yet at its heart, one essential strand of the regulation is still the same. People in positions of power must be “fit “and “proper”.
Mr Flowers, the former Chairman of the Co-op bank, has recently been cross examined by the Treasury Committee in Parliament. It does not make good listening or reading. Let us leave aside his unusual private life and his brush with the authorities. He does not come across as a man well versed in his bank, its scale and financial activities. He has no formal qualifications that make him an obvious choice for the job. How had the various regulators overseeing him assessed him as “fit”? Why had there been no follow up to the questions over his exit from a charity? The interview with a representative of the Methodist Church on Sunday also made poor listening. The Church said he had remained as a religious Minister and a representative of their faith because there had been no complaints. Their assessment system for who can become and remain as Methodist ministers clearly does not work well in all cases.
I have regularly warned in the Commons that simply adding more and more regulations to the lawcodes everytime there is an error or crisis in financial services does not make for a better future. The bad cases of misconduct and failure in recent years were actions against the laws and regulations years ago, long before this generation of politicians has greatly increased the list of rules and the numbers of regulators. What is needed is better detective work and a better nose for the minority of cases where bad decisions are made and the wrong people appointed. That does not take more laws or more regulators. It requires a few regulators with good sources, a good screening system, and an ability to recognise a disaster in the making. It certainly requires regulators to see that mutuals may go as wrong as for profit companies. They are not ethically superior just because they say they are. They need to earn that status by their deeds. Too many laws can make it difficult for honest businesses, and can obfuscate the regulator’s view of who is fit and proper and which organisation is solvent.
Mr Hunt, the Health Secretary, announced last week that all people over 75 would have a named GP in charge of their healthcare. The main criticism of the policy I heard was why can’t we all have that? Mr Hunt said he would like to, but had to introduce it gently to work with the GPs. Let’s hope more can benefit from this sensible policy before long.
Last week I visited the Berkshire Health Authority. It was a timely visit. It meant I could support Mr Hunt’s policy, encourage the local service to follow it up in the right spirit, and add some observations of my own concerning home care based on conversations and cases I have had in recent months.
The Health Trust raised the question of what happens when the named GP is away or having time off? The idea of the scheme is that the GP can set up the necessary pattern of treatments, home visits and other services when he or she is in the surgery, and make sure there are arrangements with other parts of the NHS to follow up, with emergency cover for when he is away. Most of this work is not urgent or time critical, so it can be organised in normal hours to the mutual convenience of patient and doctor.
I asked that the local NHS has a good look at how they handle discharges from hospital, or people who are told they need extended home based treatment following examination and diagnosis. I have heard of people who need medical equipment which is supplied without proper instruction on how to use it, or without technical back-up for maintenance and repair. I have heard of people who need supplies of special foods or medical items who do not get the ones they need in a timely way, or get sent the wrong ones, or who have a large delivery with more than they need. Good control of stock, timely delivery of what is required, and reappraisal of need from time to time would make for happier patients and less wasteful expenditure. I pointed out that people have told me the NHS is bad at collecting medical equipment which people no longer need, even to the point of not wanting crutches or other substantial items if people turn up with them at the supplying hospital.
The Health Secretary is seeking to shine a light into the NHS on the basis that greater clarity of what is happening can but lead to better service and in many cases to better control of costs at the same time. I will follow up with Berkshire Health Authority to see how they are getting on in due course.
The Trust told me they have plans to improve Wokingham Hospital as a local centre to provide necessary services in the local area. Meanwhile the new surgery in Wokingham is nearing completion.
It’s good news that the economy is growing again at a decent pace. Many businesses report better conditions. Unemployment in Wokingham is mercifully low. There is a quickening of the pace for lots of industries.
The not so good news is the continuing squeeze on living standards. Living standards crashed in 2008-9 during the Great recession, and have not picked up since. I have been urging the government to do more to tackle high and rising fuel prices. The latest large increases have produced a response. The Chancellor is likely to announce something to cut the green taxes and levies on our fuel bills come the Autumn Statement early in December. I have held meetings with him and with the Energy Minister, Mr Fallon, to suggest ways that government itself could make a contribution to getting the bills under better control.
The problem, unfortunately, goes wider than just a few green levies boosting the bills. Over the last decade the then government signed up with EU partners to measures which mean closing a lot of our older but cheaper power generating stations that burn coal and oil. They watched as our nuclear stations approached their end of life, without putting in place any new building to replace them. They signed up to an EU requirement that we rely much more on windmills for our future energy needs, an extremely expensive way of producing power. It is going to take time to put in place the new power stations we need to keep the lights on. It will not be possible to stop all the price rises now built into the system, as the UK will for the next few years have to depend on dearer sources of power than we have been used to. If we stay in the EU on current membership terms we will be locked into dearer energy for years to come.
Our lack of flexibility over our future energy policy is just one more example of how difficult it is for Westminster and Whitehall to run the country in the interests of electors. Like the EU involvement in our borders, in our criminal justice policy and in regulating all our businesses, it comes with a high price attached and often means we cannot do as we wish. Many of you tell me you want to be carry on trading with the rest of the EU, want to be able to visit and exchange with friendly continental neighbours, and are prepared to see sensible political co-operation. Many of you do not want Brussels dictating to us on so many crucial areas of our lives. That is why I support the policy of seeing whether we can negotiate a relationship with the EU that makes more sense for us and leaves us freer to run our own affairs. This should then be put to the British people in a referendum, so we can all decide whether it makes sense or whether we would be better off out altogether, with the rest of the world that does not belong to the EU. They seem to find ways of trading and getting on with our European partners without being under the Treaties, so there is life outside the EU.
This week brings a new station to Wokingham. It’s been a long wait, with plenty of disappointments on the way, but it was worth waiting for. I have also had the pleasure of looking at the new surgery complex taking shape between Rose Street and Peach Street. This will offer better rooms and facilities for users of GP services in the town. Work is also now proceeding on the improvements to the buildings at the end of Rose Street close to the Town Hall.
It’s curious how these three projects helping to define a smarter public sector working in collaboration with the private have come together as the UK economy generally starts to show its recovery paces. The crane and skip count is rising in London and the south east. More new homes are being built. Construction is making a growing contribution to jobs and incomes.
On a recent visit to Bracknell and Wokingham College I asked about the numbers interested in training for construction jobs, given the likelihood of more openings as the rebuilding of Wokingham proceeds. I met young people learning carpentry and plumbing skills, amongst the trades we will need as the work develops. It will be good if more of the employees that will be required can come from local families looking for employment.
It looks as if the last three months have been better ones for the economy generally. Retail spending is up a bit and there is more life in the housing market. Some have written to me , worried about the Help to Buy scheme. Let me reassure you. The Help to Buy scheme is not a subsidy to drive house prices higher. The government offers a guarantee on part of the deposit so someone can get started without having a large sum to put down, but the bank has to pay the taxpayers for the guarantee so the taxpayer should not lose from it. The homebuyer has to pay for the loan in the usual way.
This help may well be on offer for a limited time, to get the housing market working better. I want many more people to have the opportuntiy of owning their own home, and am glad the government shares this aspiration. After the credit crunch the despoits became too high for many young people to afford, so something had to be done.