Remembering the Great War

With the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War due to fall next year, it was moving to read of Richard Lander pupils meeting with the Prime Minister to remember the dead on the fields of Belgium.

http://www.thisiscornwall.co.uk/Truro-students-meet-David-Camreron-Belgium/story-20348720-detail/story.html#axzz2ox06oIRi

 More information on the Government’s plans to commemorate all those who served in the Great War can be found here: 

https://www.gov.uk/government/news/government-announces-scheme-to-commemorate-ww1

West Briton column 26 December 2013 – Boxing Day

The origin of the term ‘Boxing Day’ is thought to derive from the medieval practice of distributing alms boxes from parish churches on the 26th December, a practice which continued in Cornwall into the nineteenth century.

Today is then a good day to think about one the great blessings of Christmas, the act of giving. Amidst all the doom and gloom about a consumerist society, charitable giving is on the up. Well over fifty percent of adults in the UK now give to charity at least once a month, with the average donation being £11 per donor. People are giving time as well as money, with 44% of adults now volunteering at least once a year.

The Government has an important role to play supporting this generosity, in making it easier for people to contribute to good causes. Over the past three years we have seen the introduction of a number of new schemes designed to boost the fund raising efforts of charities.

The Treasury is now more fully utilising the tax system as a means of encouraging charitable giving, introducing new tax discounts for those making substantial donations. Since last year individuals who leave 10% of their estate to charity are eligible for a reduced Inheritance Tax rate, and those in possession of items of significant cultural value can reduce their income tax bills by donating the pieces to the nation. In May lyrics handwritten by the Beatles became the first gift to be donated to the nation in this way.

Small donations to charities are just as important and the popular Gift Aid scheme has been joined by the Small Donations Scheme. The scheme covers small cash donations; allowing charities to claim top-up payments from HMRC on cash donations they receive under the value of £20. These top ups should be worth £130 million a year to charities by 2015.

Money raised from fines levied on banks found guilty of dodgy dealings are now being used to further support charities. The Chancellor George Osborne has this year directed £135 million raised from fines arising from the Libor scandal to charities, including £2.7m for military charity Help for Heroes. At least £10 million of banking fine funds will be spent on armed forces charities each and every year.

The Government can also help by cutting down on red tape, which is as much of a burden on charities as it is on business. The ongoing red tape challenge has seen over a thousand unnecessary regulations scrapped since 2011. One of these changes means that people donating items to charity shops can now make a gift aid declaration when they donate.

Cornish charities and people volunteering their time do so much here and around the world to make a really positive difference in such a wide range of ways. I will continue to all I can to help them in their vital work, work that keeps something of the generous spirit of Christmas alive every day of the year.

Researching food bank use in the UK

An instance of misdirection, once repeated online, can spread very fast indeed. A number of bloggers have claimed that the 296 MP’s who voted against Labour’s opposition motion last week voted against ‘investigating food bank use’ (http://agirlcalledjack.com/2013/12/19/the-296-mps-who-voted-against-investigating-food-banks-use-and-uk-hunger-the-list/)

This is not the motion that was voted upon. The full text of the motion can be found here:http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debate/?id=2013-12-18b.806.2

Only one of the five separate parts of the motion related to researching food bank use – the call ‘to publish the results of research into food banks commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’.

The motion did not propose the investigation of food banks, instead one sentence within it called for the publication of existing research.

A comprehensive study by DEFRA into the effectiveness of emergency food provision in the UK is ongoing. The project is being led by researchers from the University of Warwick and its results will be published in due course.

I am pleased that DEFRA have commissioned this report in response to requests from backbench MPs, and hope that it will analyse in full the varied and frequently localised factors that are driving food bank use in the UK. The issue of food bank use can only be addressed once it is fully understood.

The DEFRA report forms only one part of wider academic research into food aid in the UK. This research includes:

  • A study published by the Church Urban Fund in September 2013 into the response of UK churches to food poverty. The Report, supported by the Church Commissioner Tony Baldry MP and drawing on surveys of church groups providing food aid, can be found online at http://www.cuf.org.uk/hungry-for-more
  • A  PhD study by Hannah Lambie-Mumford of Sheffield University. Hannah is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and her work is mapping the rise in national-level, formalised, voluntary sector emergency food provision in the UK, and seeking to evidence and understand the increase in this provision and investigate the drivers and social dynamics behind it.
  • A study conducted by NatCen on behalf of FareShare, a charity that redistributes surplus food from the food industry to frontline charities. The study seeks to evaluate the value and impact of Fare Share’s work in addressing food poverty.
  • A joint study undertaken by the Church of England, Church Poverty Action Group, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust to explore the reasons people are using Food Banks. The study hopes to identify interventions that would reduce the need for Food Bank use in the future, with results published in September 2014.

In addition, some food bank operators, and those working with them, are retaining records on why people say they are accessing these services.  A number of MPs, including me, have a weekly presence at food banks in their constituencies in order to provide advice and support for those in need. This data on food bank use is important evidence to be considered alongside academic analysis.

Research into food bank use is already underway, and there are plans to draw it together. With the support of colleagues, I am working with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, the independent providers of expert scientific and social sciences information to MPs and peers, to establish a POST Food Bank Research Conference to be held in the Spring of 2014. This conference would allow existing evidence and analysis to be shared and discussed.

Whilst is it pleasing for some to paint a narrative of MPs looking forward to a Christmas of gorging whilst prohibiting research into how we best help those affected by food poverty, this picture belongs to the realms of Dickensian fantasy. In reality MPs of all parties are deeply concerned by food poverty in the UK, and are behind extensive efforts to better understand food bank use. Here is just one good example of the speeches from the debate, highlighting the work colleagues are doing in their constituencies: http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2013-12-18b.806.0&s=speaker%3A24855#g839.2

In addition to continuing to provide help and support to people using food banks in my constituency, my focus for the New Year is on moving this research onto the next stage, using our enhanced understanding to develop enhanced help for those in need. 

West Briton column 19th December 2013 – Schools and young people

As schools close for the Christmas holidays new information has been published that provide us all with some information on how well they are doing in equipping children and young people with the tools they need to build a fulfilling and happy life.

For the first time Ofsted, the schools regulator published information about schools performance by region. The report confirmed that the proportion of good or outstanding schools in the South West is above the national average, with the number of good schools continuing to increase. Over 48,000 more pupils in the South West now benefit from a good or outstanding education than was the case 12 months ago. This is a testament to the tireless efforts of local teachers, and to the generous and committed support our schools receive from the communities they serve. The report also confirmed that the South West is leading the way in providing new apprenticeship places, in Truro and Falmouth alone over 2,200 new apprenticeships have been created since 2010.

Amidst all this good news is a sobering reminder of how much further we have to go to ensure that all children get the best possible start in life. The Ofsted report highlights that children eligible for free school meals in the South West still do not perform as well as their peers. This is unacceptable and must be changed.

An important way in which we can level the playing field is to focus financial support on those who need extra help to realise their potential, and ensure that this help is available from the start of a child’s life. The Government has been steadily expanding free nursery education for families with lower incomes. 20% of all two year olds are now eligible for free nursery education, increasing to 40% of all two year olds next year. As children progress, support continues; in this year alone the Government is investing £2 million in local young people by providing additional support through the pupil premium for 2,500 children in Truro and Falmouth. Currently the pupil premium provides an average of £900 of additional support for each individual pupil; this will increase to £1300 per pupil next year.

A real difference can also be made by encouraging aspiration not just in pupils, but in their parents and wider community as well. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation have published fascinating research showing how engaging with parents, detailing how good grades can be the key to their child building a bright future and helping them overcome literacy and numeracy problems themselves, can make all the difference to a young person’s educational prospects. Education is a transformative and liberating force, whatever age you are.

Cornish classrooms now lie empty as families come together to enjoy the festivities and look forward to the New Year. I wish you, your family and friends a very Merry Christmas and pay tribute to all those people working over the Christmas season to keep us safe and healthy.

Helping the homeless

I am looking forward to attending a very special coffee morning tomorrow, at St John’s Church Hall in Truro. The Hall is home to Truro Homeless Action Group (THAG), who work tirelessly to offer Truro’s homeless a cooked breakfast, a cup of tea, and a friendly chat, every morning of the week and every day of the year. The coffee morning and raffle, held from 10.30 am, will help raise funds for this great local charity and I hope that if you are free and in the area you can pop by to show your support.

It is only now that the true scale of homelessness in Cornwall is being appreciated, and acted upon. Before the election I was a volunteer with THAG and saw firsthand how homelessness in Cornwall was being underestimated, as an urban-centric Labour Government failed to understand that in the countryside homeless people often choose to sleep in farm based caravans and tents, rather than bedding down on the street. Since my election more comprehensive and accurate counts have taken place annually, to determine the number of people sleeping rough in the Duchy, whether in the fields or on the streets. The Government looks at these annual figures and provides corresponding financial support to help Cornwall Council work with partners to get numbers down and help people turn their lives around.

As a result since 2010 Cornwall has received over £3 million from central government to help tackle homelessness.  I am working with THAG and other great local groups, including St Petroc’s Society, to ensure that this money is spent in ways which prevent homelessness, provide homeless people with increased comfort and security, whilst opening up new opportunities for them to rebuild their lives.  This winter there are new overnight shelters for homeless people in Cornwall, providing warmth and shelter as the weather deteriorates. Crucially shelters allow health and housing professionals to work with homeless people in a safe space, helping them deal with health and addiction problems, and take steps towards getting stable accommodation and employment.

I am pleased that this work is beginning to pay off, with the number of rough sleepers in Cornwall having fallen since 2010. However more must be done to help those living on our streets, in our woods and in our fields.

Of course it is not just the homeless that are in need this Christmas. The tireless volunteers who run local food banks continue to provide supplies and support to people in severe financial difficulty. Over the past eight months my office team has been privileged to work alongside these volunteers, attending weekly food banks to provide help and advice. This is wide ranging and includes helping food bank clients access education and support services leading to new employment, highlighting the free debt advice that means people don’t need to use loan sharks and pay day loans, to ensuring that people are getting all the benefits they are entitled to.  This crucial work will continue into the New Year.

 

 

 

Conservative Disability Group’s 4th Annual Disability colloquium

Conservative Disability Group’s 4th Annual Disability colloquium

I was delighted to speak at the Conservative Disability Group’s Annual Disability colloquium last month.

All too often when talking about disability people can overlook the outstanding contribution that people living with disabilities make to their communities and their country; the colloquium was a wonderful and refreshing opportunity to highlight and celebrate this contribution and the lives that have been enriched through it.

I look forward to continuing to work with the Conservative Disability Group on what more we can all do to help people living with disabilities to achieve their potential, and to celebrate their contribution to our nation.

West Briton column 5 December 2013 – Small Business Saturday

This weekend will see the launch of the first ever UK Small Business Saturday, a day that celebrates our country’s small businesses and the role they play in our lives. What better way of celebrating our small business than using them? The Small Business Saturday campaign is encouraging all of us to go out and shop on Saturday. It is great to see this initiative being supported by the Government and locally by the West Briton, who are running a local high street hero campaign to coincide with Small Business Saturday.

A thriving small business community has always been an important part of Cornish life. I am proud to have grown up in a small family business in Falmouth, and prouder still to see an extraordinary range of small businesses still at the heart of Cornwall’s economy. Outside London and the South East, the South West has the highest ratio of businesses to people in the UK, the majority of them employing five workers or less. Within the South West, Cornwall has the highest proportion of people running their own businesses.

Of course times are still very tough for many businesses, who need real support in order to thrive. Two weeks ago I talked about the free training opportunities and online guidance now available to local businesses, forming part of a wider package of support. This support includes a pioneering new business mentors scheme which gives businesses the chance to access guidance from 27,000 business mentors through the Government backed website mentorsme.co.uk. Red tape that holds small businesses back is being cut, with over a thousand unnecessary regulations scrapped since 2011 and thousands more now being subject to review. This ongoing ‘red tape challenge’ is estimated to have saved British businesses £155 million so far.

Entrepreneurs are being supported through a Start-up Loans scheme, which offers seed capital of up to £2,500 to help new businesses. I was delighted to learn last month that the 10,000 loan offered by the scheme has gone to Truro businessman and Royal Navy veteran Allen Martin, to help with property management firm Eclipse Property Cornwall. From April new and existing businesses will alike benefit from a new £2000 Employment Allowance, reducing the National Insurance contribution bills for all small businesses, and taking 450,000 of them out of National Insurance contributions altogether.

Whilst these measures are really helping, small businesses do still face a number of real problems, particularly concerning business rates and access to finance. The Government taken some good steps in the right direction, doubling small business rate relief for four years in a row, setting up a British Business Bank and just last week refocusssing the Funding for Lending scheme so that it encourages banks to lend more to businesses. More however does need to be done.

I will continue to speak up for local businesses and hope you will join me in the run up to Christmas in supporting our excellent local producers and retailers. Shop small, shop local and support Cornish business.