West Briton column 30 January 2014 – Big Energy Saving Week

Before entering Parliament I served as a director of Age Concern England, highlighting the problems facing older people and pressing for change. As a Member of Parliament I am privileged to be able to continue this work, joining forces with local and national charities and groups to help older people living in my constituency.

As ever, the costs facing older people trying to adequately heat their home remain a real concern. The Government’s continued increases to the State Pension, increased Cold Weather payments and securing of £50 off the average heating bill are helping. But more can be done to promote the full range of support now available to people of all ages struggling with the cost of heating.

This week Cornwall Rural Community Council are doing their bit to boost this promotion, by advertising ‘Big Energy Saving Week’ across the Duchy. This campaign running from 27 to 31 January aims to encourage people to take the steps open to them to reduce their heating bills. Cornwall Rural Community Council are out and about in Cornish streets, advising local residents of how they can switch supplier for cheaper tariffs, make the most of the heating they do use, and apply for benefits and funding to better insulate and heat their home.

To coincide with ‘Big Energy Saving Week’ Camborne based social enterprise Community Energy Plus have launched a new insulation scheme offering free or heavily subsidised grants to help residents insulate the external walls of their home. Excitingly this insulation can be fitted to properties with solid Cornish walls which often struggle to retain heat, resulting in energy bill savings of up to £490 a year. Further information on the new scheme can be obtained by calling 0800 954 1956.

My booklet summarising how to save money on heating your home can be downloaded from http://www.sarahnewton.org.uk or obtained in hard copy by calling 01872 274 760.

Sadly of course heating costs aren’t the only issue facing our most vulnerable pensioners. I was shocked to learn this week of new House of Commons Library figures that indicate that more than 370,000 old people suffer from abuse or neglect every year. As part of my ongoing work on the Care Bill Committee I am working with colleagues on strengthening parts of the Bill that will help tackle this unacceptable situation. The Bill will require Local Authorities to more fully investigate reported abuse of older people, with these investigations being overseen by local Safeguarding Adults Boards.

A growing form of neglect is malnutrition. A recent nutrition screening survey carried out for the NHS has shown that malnutrition rates are growing in the UK, driven largely by increasing numbers of older people failing to consume and retain the nutrients they need. In response the Government has instigated a pilot Malnutrition Prevention Project, in which volunteers and health professionals encourage older people to be aware of malnutrition, and how to avoid it. Lessons learned this pilot need to be urgently rolled out.

West Briton column 23 January 2014 – The Care Bill

I often spend time with young people in schools talking about my work as an MP and many are surprised by the amount of my time taken up by Public Bill Committees. This is where MPs spend many hours going through legislation, word by word to try and ensure that what a Bill creates is clear and when implemented achieves what MPs hoped it would. A single word or phrase in a Bill can make a real difference to people’s lives.

At my request I am a member of the Care Bill Committee, and am currently busy scrutinising this landmark piece of legislation. The Care Bill aims to improve the care people receive, establishing new rights and responsibilities that enable local councils and the NHS to promote people’s health and wellbeing. For many years of my adult life I have been campaigning for a number of changes that the Bill brings.

One particular aspect of the Care Bill will affect us all. For there is one certainty in life and that is we all die. In my personal life and work as an MP I have experienced people receiving excellent care and support that has enabled them to die in their place of choice, at home with their loved ones. I have also too often experienced the opposite where people and their loved ones are overwhelmed by the complexity of dealing with the NHS and Social services while they are trying to come to terms with their impending loss, resulting in the patient passing away in hospital.

Most people do not want to die in hospital. When asked 93% of people say they would prefer to die at home or in a hospice. However currently only 30% of the people who die in the UK each
year are able to do this, with the rest dying in hospital.

For the last couple of years I have been working with MacMillan Cancer Support and Carers UK to press the Government to ensure free and easy access to the care needed to enable people to die in their place of choice.

Ministers have been persuaded, and pilots have been set up across the country to figure out how this can be effectively delivered. Last week in the Care Bill Committee I pressed Ministers for an update on this work and was pleased to be informed that the Government is determined to introduce free end of life care following the results of the pilots, which are due to end in March.

This is good news, which along with other measure contained in the Care Bill, will enable more people to die at home with their loved ones, supported by specialist NHS and caring services. This is not only the first choice of many but will also help prevent unnecessary delays in treatment in hospital for other patients, putting us one step closer in delivering an NHS shaped around the wishes of patients, both in life and at its close.

West Briton column 16 January 2014 – Housing in Cornwall

While we all rightly cherish the Cornish landscape, it is also important to remember that it is a working landscape. At its heart are our farmers, and the food and drink they produce.

The range of quality produce, inspired by the land and climate of Cornwall grows each year. The Cornish Food and Drink Sector is already vitally important to the Duchy, providing 30% of local jobs, and looks set to play an even more central role in Cornwall’s future. The Government has launched a major new campaign to persuade people to buy more British produce, to reduce the amount of food we import. Currently 24% of all food eaten in the UK is imported, much of it by no means exotic. £8 billion of fruit and veg alone comes in from abroad every year, the vast majority of which can now be grown in Britain thanks to new technologies.

Buying more home grown produce doesn’t just help our farmers; it also makes sense for British households feeling the pinch. One of the biggest impacts on household bills over the past five years has been global food prices, which have risen by 12.6% above UK inflation levels since 2007, driven by extreme weather ruining harvests in developing parts of the world and growing demand from people around the world.

So our farmland is becoming yet more important. At County Hall Conservative Councillors are working to remind decision makers of this, and to entrench the protection of our productive farmland in the twenty year Local Plan for Cornwall. The Local Plan currently proposes the construction of up to 47,500 new homes in the Duchy, based on maintaining the building rates we have seen over recent years.

My Council colleagues and I believe that this is simply not good enough. Whilst we have seen thousands upon thousands of new homes built in Cornwall over the past decade, often on greenfield sites, too few have been genuinely affordable homes for local people to either buy or rent. As a result farmland has been lost to new housing that has not done enough to meet local need.

We are proposing a new approach, based not on past building rates, but on the number of local people who need housing now, and those who will need it over the coming years. This produces a lower figure for new homes for Cornwall over the next twenty years. In Parliament last week I was pleased to speak in support of this new approach, and to secure an assurance for the Planning Minister that it was acceptable, provided it was backed up by robust evidence showing that it would deliver the homes that are needed by many people here and now.

New tools and funds are available to support Cornwall Council and partners in meeting this need. Cornwall’s plan needs to give far greater priority to delivering genuinely affordable homes for local people and to preserving our precious farmland, needed today and for many years to come.

A fair deal for all tenants

As extreme weather has once again battered our coastline and swelled our rivers, we owe huge thanks to those who have worked tirelessly to keep us, our homes and businesses as safe as possible; the emergency services, Coastguards, Cornwall Council and the Environment Agency. Their work has been complemented by volunteers and numerous acts of kindness between neighbours and friends as communities have come together to help prevent and repair damage.

Perranporth has been hit particularly badly, with the popular Tywarnhayle Inn flooded again. This persistent problem is deeply frustrating for all those who work in and use the pub.  I am working with Cornwall Council and other agencies to resolve this situation, and other persistent flooding issues in other parts of my constituency. 

The Government has now activated the Bellwin Scheme, which grants funding to areas badly hit by flooding that can be used to help with clear up costs and I will do all I can to make sure Cornwall gets its fair share and it reaches those that need it most.

I also want to work with Cornwall Council to make best use of tools offered by Government concerning rented housing. Since being elected I have pushed for action for a fair deal for all those who rent property, whether in the private or socially rented sector.

Guidance issued last week by the Department for Communities and Local Government makes it crystal clear that, with very few exceptions, local council homes should go to local people. Members of the armed forces and their families are rightly exempted.  With few exceptions, Cornwall Council has control over the eligibility criteria of its housing register Homechoice and I look forward to seeing a new, fairer registration process coming into effect soon.

Whilst the majority of private landlords run ethical and responsible businesses, too many private tenants continue to get ripped off, either by rogue landlords or by dodgy letting agents. Cornwall Council has not yet set up a local scheme, despite the excellent work of Cornwall Residential Landlords Association to protect people renting homes in Cornwall. I very much hope that they do so this year.

The Government is playing its part by setting up new redress schemes and codes of practise, with the aim of ensuring that all tenants get a fair deal. As these schemes are developed further tenants will be entitled to know up front all the fees associated with setting up their tenancy, to know in advance the level of service they can expect from their landlord, and request long term rental contracts. 

In order to drive down the price of renting for everyone, the Government has initiated a £1 billion build to rent scheme which aims to deliver more rental properties. Cornwall Housing also has new financial opportunities to build more homes and Cornwall Council has powers to bring empty homes back into use.

I will continue working with ministerial colleagues, Cornwall Council and the Cornwall Residential Landlords Association to secure a better deal for all tenants in 2014. 

Celebrating public service

This year, as with every other, many people working in our public services in Cornwall spent their Christmas and New Year keeping us safe and healthy. From police officers who spent Christmas Day ready to respond to any emergency, to nurses who saw the New Year in helping over-indulgers at Treliske’s A&E department, through to the Environment Agency teams and Coastguards we all owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Their preparedness to give up time with family and friends to serve others reveals something important about the nature of public service. Too often public service is depicted in being bound up a in a monolithic, bureaucratic, corporate body separate from the rest of us.  Yet it was individual men and women that put on their uniforms and left warm homes, heading out into the cold, wet and windy weather in order give something back to our community.

This for me is the spirit of public service, individuals putting the long term needs of their community above their own short term wants and comforts. Whilst frequently typified by those working for state institutions, it is not confined to one particular type of employment. The millions of people who volunteer for good causes every year, the workers in all sorts of companies who go the extra mile to provide a good service for local people, all make our society that little bit better.

This social contribution is a powerful force for good. All too often the problems that can blight the lives of many are social in origin, from poverty to a sense of isolation that can lead to substance abuse. Social responses can be the solution to these social problems. From the volunteers at CAB signposting a person who didn’t get on at school to the new adult education opportunities now available to them, opportunities to help them get closer to work or better paid employment, through to the social care professional going the extra mile to encourage an isolated person to get involved in local support and social clubs, compassion can be a catalyst for change in someone’s life.

What more can we do to unleash this great good? People looking to volunteer can now go to an online hub for all volunteering activities www.do-it.org.uk to search though over a million volunteering opportunities across the UK. The National Citizen Service (NCS) Programme, successfully piloted in Cornwall in 2011, is now in its third year and gives fifteen to eighteen year olds the chance to spend a summer honing their citizenship skills before putting those skills into action by volunteering their own communities. NCS is now delivered in Cornwall by Cornwall College, to find out more visit www.cornwall.ac.uk/national-citizen-service

Public service is not a fluffy, ethereal concept, or an ethos confined to those who work for central or local government– it is a real and inclusive force for good that helps all of us, and changes lives for the better.