Understanding food bank use

I recently chaired a conference that I organised with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology on food aid. I am a member of the board of this really useful organization, which provides all Members of Parliament with independent expert analysis on science, including social science and technology, to inform parliamentarian’s work.

The Food Aid in the UK conference was attended by a broad range of parliamentarians, organisations and researchers. The information and opinions shared will now form part of the APPG Inquiry that is looking at how we can ensure everyone can afford a healthy, nutritious food for themselves and their family. I am working on this inquiry with Frank Field MP and Bishop Tim of Truro for the next few months. Our inquiry will make recommendations for all political parties and people to consider as we approach the 2015 general election.

While foodbank useage has been increasing for more than a decade, the Conference demonstrated that there is a paucity of robust evidence for why so many people are using food banks. The debate about the reasons has become highly politicised and emotive, generating more heat than light. There will be much work for the APPG Inquiry do to plug this gap of understanding.

From my own work helping people using local Foodbanks I see a complexity of reasons. There are straightforward ways we have been able to help, for example helping people get the benefits that they are entitled to and didn’t know about, cutting through delays in benefits processing and helping people to access publicly funded services that they didn’t know about. Working alongside Foodbank volunteers we have helped many people from the gentleman who didn’t know about Pension Tax credit who now has the money to look after himself to the homeless gentleman who now has accommodation and is training for a new job. Many people have fallen between the cracks of the public and voluntary services that are there to help support them so they can help themselves.

Independent and authoritative data from the ONS and OECD shows the number of people finding it difficult to get by financially and afford food is declining. However there is much more work to do to bring the numbers down further.

As great a challenge is to ensure that people who work hard and try their best to look after themselves and their families are able to earn enough for themselves and their families for a decent standard of living. We live in an increasingly complex, competitive and uncertain world. One that rewards high skills and flexibility. As we rebuild and rebalance our economy I want to make sure no one is left behind. I do not want to live in a country that sees Foodbanks as a normal part of our society as has happened in Canada and other rich nations. While there will always be a need to help people in crisis situations when they run out of money widespread use of food aid must not become entrenched.

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A secure and affordable energy future

Last month saw a very welcome investigation announced, with an Ofgem Report recommending a comprehensive review of the UK energy market. The investigation will be carried out by Ofgem’s successor body, the new Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).

The CMA will look at how the market can be made more competitive, in order to secure better prices for energy consumers. The Government has welcomed the market review and will be doing it all it can to facilitate the CMA’s investigations. Ministers have for some time been concerned by ‘big six’ energy companies that Labour allowed to dominate the market, and has been working to encourage new firms to enter the market to provide more choice for energy customers.

This boost to competition, helpfully to be furthered by the CMA investigation, forms one part of the Government’s multi-pronged attack on the high energy bills we have been experiencing as a result of rising global demand and historic shortfalls in investment. Addressing the under-investment in energy infrastructure of the Labour years forms another important part of the Government’s plan. Energy Ministers have now secured fourteen contracts for new power generation projects, projects that will when delivered help ensure Britain’s long term energy security. Ongoing support for renewable energy, with a growing focus on unlocking
the incredible energy bound up in our seas, is also helping to get us closer to secure energy supplies and affordable bills in the future.

The Coalition has also been working to strike the right balance in regards to the levies that are placed on energy companies. Changes in these levies have required energy companies to pass savings onto all customers, cutting £50 of the average energy bill. Some energy companies have been enabled to go even further as a result of the levy changes, announcing two year price freezes. The amended levy system is also raising much needed funds to help those living in fuel poverty, funding projects that are driving bills down. One of these schemes has been extended this Spring, with British Gas now offering free insulation to uninsulated homes. Anyone can now apply for this, to find out more call 0800 787 0192 before the deadline on 31st May.

I was delighted to secure confirmation of improvements to another scheme, the Warm Home Discount, at a House of Commons debate I led last month. The Minister for Energy confirmed that more money would now be spent on the scheme, and more efforts made to identify and contact families the scheme could help. To find out more visit http://www.sarahnewton.org.uk

To turn back to an issue I wrote about some weeks ago, I was saddened to read the recent letter penned by the Cornish Stannary Parliament regarding the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. Their description of people who have come to Cornwall over the past fifty years as ‘immigrants’ threatening ‘true Britons with extinction’ illustrates precisely how dangerous, exclusive and downright bizarre the definition of Cornish identity as a matter of race can be.

Health Minister visiting Truro

Health Minister Dr Dan Poulter MP is in Truro today, visiting the Royal Cornwall Hospital and the adjacent Knowledge Spa.

Dr Poulter, a practising hospital doctor himself, will accompany Truro and Falmouth MP Sarah Newton on a tour of the revitalized Accident and Emergency department at Treliske. The revitalized department, secured through £1.2 million of extra funding granted by the Department of Health in 2012, has already made a real difference to patient experience and includes a new frailty unit to assist vulnerable older people coming to the Hospital to get caring and compassionate care in their own homes.

Dr Poulter will also meet with staff delivering after-stroke care, a Hospital service that has been recently boosted by the successful Phoenix fundraising campaign led by the Friends of the Royal Cornwall Hospital.

The visit will conclude with a trip to the Knowledge Spa, the partnership project that delivers first class health education and training facilities for NHS staff and academic researchers. Dr Poulter will sit in a on a clinical skills training session before meeting with the research team at Exeter University’s European Centre for Environment and Human Health.

Commenting on the visit Mrs Newton said:

‘‘I am delighted to be able to show Dr Poulter firsthand some of the excellent work being done at Treliske and to give him the opportunity to thank the Hospital’s hard working staff. It is great also to be able to flag up the important role that Truro’s Knowledge Spa is playing, both in providing training and development opportunities for NHS staff and in expanding the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

‘The visit is also a good opportunity to talk about the future for the NHS in Cornwall. Whilst the Duchy is benefiting from new services, such as the new A&E Department at Treliske, we have further to go to secure fairer funding for Cornwall and to ensure that services we will need in the future are put in place. I am particularly keen to see local maternity services boosted in light of the Cornish baby boom we continue to experience. It is vitally important that all local mums get the possible care, now and in the future.’’

Working towards a secure and prosperous future for one and all

Four years ago when I was elected my colleagues and I faced a very tough challenge. The Government was spending more that it raised from taxes. The national debt was the equivalent of £40,000 for each UK household. The cost to the taxpayer of the interest on the borrowing to fill the gap was £120 million each day.

I felt it was my responsibility to play my part in sorting out this mess rather than ducking the issue and passing on even more debt to cripple our children and grandchildren. The reductions in public expenditure have been tough, especially for those working in our essential public services. They have however taken place alongside successful efforts to increase the amount of money collected from tax, by making the tax system fairer and more efficient. The proportion of income tax paid by the wealthiest 1% of the population has reached 30% under this Government – it was 25% under Labour. Tax loopholes are being closed in the UK and tax havens tackled abroad.

Of course you won’t be surprised to read as a Conservative I believe in low taxes and freedom for people to make their own choices on how they spend their money. I am proud of reforms secured by Conservatives in Government that have increased the amount of money people earn before they pay tax, with the lowest paid getting the most help.

As a result of these changes nearly 39,000 of the lowest paid people in my constituency have benefited from significant tax cuts since 2010, many being taken out of income tax altogether. The State Pension continues to rise faster than it did under Labour and the amount of money being spent on benefits for people living with disabilities has also increased.

Whilst these measures are increasingly making a difference I understand that many people have had pay cuts or freezes and this has been tough. However, thanks to the sacrifices of local people and employers our economy has turned a corner and wages are beginning to rise. Unemployment is down and many local businesses are growing, taking on apprentices.

Many people here work in small and medium sized businesses. Many more are self employed. These are the wealth creators without whose determination, creativity and hard work jobs would not be created. We rely on their abilities to generate the income from tax needed for public services such as the NHS. This is why, this week a range of tax cuts to boost small and medium businesses have come into effect, from a £1000 business rates discount to a £2000 Employment Allowance.

While I see growing confidence about our local economy wherever I go, I know we are just at the beginning of a long journey. This month’s tax changes and freezes are part of the Conservatives long term plan for Cornwall and our country, with the Government’s better management of public finances enabling local people and local businesses alike to grow their own incomes, to the benefit of one and all.

Sarah Newton MP backs new campaign to boost young first time voter engagement in political process through community action

Sarah Newton, Member of Parliament for Truro and Falmouth has today pledged support for My Voice, My Vote a new, independent all-party campaign to support young first time voters to take social action in their community as a way to encourage their involvement in the democratic process.

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My Voice, My Vote is a programme of UpRising, a new charity that has Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband as its three founding Patrons.

The programme will see young people trained in leadership skills and campaigning techniques such as digital storytelling, and then supported to take part in social action within their local community – all aimed at developing a passion and interest in the wellbeing of the community in which they live. At the same time, with support from and access to a network of elected representatives, business and civic leaders young people will be encouraged to recognise the link between the future of their neighbourhood and the use of their right to vote.

UpRising will begin its activities in the summer of 2014, launching in London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester, Stoke and Luton.

Youth voting has been falling since the 1970s. While the percentage of all registered voters participating in the 2010 election increased from the previous poll, only 44 per cent of voters aged 18-25 took part, compared with 76 per cent of voters aged 65 or older. Turnout was particularly low among young women aged 18-25: only 39 per cent went to the polls, compared with 50 per cent of young men of the same age.

Boosting levels of youth voting is important because without active engagement by young people in the political process their priorities are less likely to be heard and acted upon by policy makers. This cross-party campaign seeks to increase these levels, and sees participation in volunteering and social action as key to encouraging this increase.

Youth engagement is social action is also low in Britain today. 29 per cent of young people aged 18-25 take part in regular volunteering within their community compared to 59 per cent amongst the same age group in Canada, according to research by the think-tank Demos. Organisations such as the nationwide campaign Step Up to Serve is seeking to encourage greater volunteering and youth participation in community campaigning; other campaigns such as Bite the Ballot are seeking to boost voter registration by young people: UpRising supports all of these campaigns, and the My Voice, My Vote initiative adds to these efforts by, for the first time, encouraging social action as a direct way of stimulating interest in voting and the democratic process.

As part of the campaign political representatives are pledging to support the following aims across the country:

MP pledges:

1. Encourage young people in my area to get involved in social action that benefits both them and their community

2. Introduce young people to other leaders in my area who could help them with their social action campaigns.

3. Encourage young people in my area to register to vote

4. Encourage young people in my area to come and join me on my General Election campaign

5. Hold a youth hustings during the election campaign so issues of interest to first time voters can be addressed directly

Mrs Newton commented:

“I’m pleased to be lending my support to the My Voice, My Vote Campaign to increase young people’s engagement in politics and the democratic process through taking social action. It benefits all of us if young people are engaged in politics and exercise their democratic right.

“It stands to reason that if you have a passion for your community and its future then you are more likely to exercise your right to vote on decisions effecting your area come election time. Making that link between volunteering and politics is therefore a key way to encourage young people to vote and reverse the decline in their participation in recent General Elections”.

Accessible, individualised and wellbeing-focussed help for people living with disabilities

Last week the Government confirmed that it was terminating the contract that has seen Work Capability Assessments delivered by Atos Ltd. Since 2008 Work Capability Assessments (WCA’s) delivered by Atos have determined eligibility for disability benefits.

Along with many others I have been concerned by Atos’ ability to effectively and compassionately carry out the important task it had been asked to do. Working with volunteers at Cornwall CAB, and with other local groups, I have repeatedly brought the very concerning experiences of local people who have encountered a range of problems with Atos WCA’s to the attention of Ministers.

Ministers agreed with me that Atos simply weren’t delivering the high service standards they had been paid to provide, and will now be finding a new organisation to deliver WCAs.

Learning the lessons of Atos allows us to move further forward towards a more compassionately transformative support system for people living with disabilities. Over recent years good progress has been made towards this. Crucially the money is there to help people living with disabilities, with the Government having put an extra £1 billion into the budget that supports disability benefits since 2010.

WCA’s have the potential to ensure that this money is well spent, on meeting individual needs. These assessments are under constant scrutiny and reform by the Coalition, who have implemented over fifty improvements to the WCA process since 2010. These include a range of measures, designed in conjunction with health and disability charities, to ensure that WCAs take into full account the debilitating effects of fluctuating health conditions, such as MS on an individual’s life. I am particularly pleased that our reforms have meant mental heath conditions are taken as seriously as physical health problems. These changes are making a difference, with the number of benefit applications awarded to people with a mental illness quadrupling since 2010.

The help provided by the Government now goes wider than just financial support, with support to boost personal wellbeing also being offered. Whilst some people can’t work, for others appropriate employment or education opportunities can make all the difference to self-esteem and life fulfilment. Specialist providers, such as the PLUSS team based in Truro, work with the Government to help people access these opportunities, providing advice, training and work experience and interview opportunities.

Following the adoption of a Government action plan in 2012 apprenticeships are now also being made more inclusive, with a major new campaign entitled ‘Disability Confident’ also being launched this year to further promote the skills offered by people with disabilities to employers.

The new WCA contract should build on the recent reforms, and on the lessons of the Atos era, to ensure that the whole process is built around the individual, and their needs.  Accessible help from Government, which enables individual wellbeing as well as financial support should be deliverable for all people living with disabilities.  I will continue to work to make sure it is achieved for as many of my constituents as possible.