Tackling Poverty

There is much debate about poverty in the UK.  To have an effective debate in our open but fragile democracy, we need to have objective information to consider. Over time a range of measures of living standards and poverty have emerged. Some are calculations of the amount of money people need for what society considers the essentials of life. There is much debate on what is considered essential. Other measures are about comparing how much money different groups of people have to live on compared with other groups. The most commonly reported measures of poverty use this relative poverty approach. So if average incomes were £1 million, people earning £400,000 could be deemed to be living in relative poverty. Relative poverty measures mean that, whoever is in government, there will always be people deemed to be living in poverty. 

It’s an important debate, but I am more focussed on the people living here who are struggling to make ends meet and putting more money in their pockets.  Long before I was elected as your local MP, I worked hard to help people out of poverty. When I was Director of Age Concern England, I campaigned to end pensioner poverty. Since being elected I have continued my work with people who are all too often overlooked. They need help from their families, friends, employers, communities, as well as local and national government agencies.  

The most fundamental need is for a decent, warm and affordable home. Housing costs are the biggest part of living costs for many local people, especially for those on the lowest incomes. 

Although it has taken much longer than I and many Cornwall Council employees had hoped, Cornwall Council leaders are now beginning to use the powers they have been given and their financial resources to build more social and genuinely affordable homes and to drive up standards in the private rented sector. It is thanks to this government’s new Homeless Prevention Act and the ramped-up regulation of landlords that Cornwall Council is now focussing on this issue. I am delighted that it has recently said that it will buy homes for homeless people rather than pay for bed and breakfast accommodation. 

Some people need financial help too. Thanks to good partnership working, including with Cornwall Council, Universal Credit is helping local people. The more tailor-made support local work coaches can offer people in and out of work is a significant improvement on the previous complex benefit system it replaces, where too many people missed out on support they were entitled to. It’s a major reform being introduced carefully. Lessons are being learned and improvements made. I work closely with local, impartial, expert welfare advisers, taking up issues identified and securing positive changes in processes as well as extra funding. We spent £264 billion on welfare in 2017, 34% of government expenditure. Some benefits for people who can work are capped (£20,000 per year for couples and lone parents). Pensioner and disability benefits are not capped. 

First published in the West Briton 29/11/18

Update from Parliament

Last week was dominated by consideration of the proposed agreements with the European Union that set out how we will leave the EU in an orderly way and develop a new and close relationship – a relationship that is based on our shared values, mutual security and economic prosperity.

The negotiations are still not complete and the final proposed agreements will be presented to Parliament later this month for further and thorough debate. We will then vote on the agreements.

I have read and considered all the documentation and listened to the debate in the Commons. I believe that what the Prime Minister has agreed with the EU has delivered on what the referendum mandated: we will be leaving the EU in March next year, the right to free movement will end, we will take back control of our laws and we will be leaving the single market. We will become an independent coastal nation.

I know that fervent Brexiteers, and those who do not want to leave the EU, will say that some of these things aren’t delivered instantly and that there remains some uncertainty on others. Some will protest that we will have to follow EU rules on goods.  And they will be right.

But, crucially, the deal also delivers continued near friction free access to the EU markets which guarantees so many jobs and livelihoods here and all over the UK. We will be able to continue to participate in Europol and EuroJust and other mutually beneficial programmes that are so important for our security, universities and jobs. While it is perfectly logical to reject this “deal” because of the compromises it makes, I won’t be doing that.

This “deal” delivers Brexit in a humane and considered way and fulfils the objectives the PM outlined at the start of the process and which were agreed by Parliament. It has been welcomed by important organisations such as those representing business and industry as well as the NFU. I hope that Parliament will pass the final version of the “deal”. I will continue to support the PM to do so. We can then move on.

The really hard work of implementing the “deal” will then begin. It will take considerable focus and effort to implement it well over the next few years.

At the same time we will all need to spend more time in addressing the divisions in our society that came into sharp focus during the referendum campaign – divisions, often based on ignorance and fear, that are being manipulated by politicians and public figures with far left or right wing political ideology.

Their simplistic, popular remedies for our current problems often conceal their underlying ideology.  Fascism and socialism, with all the suffering that it brings, is not dead despite the battles fought in the last century and the manifest suffering of people subjected to socialism now in countries like Venezuela.

Now is the time for people who believe in our values of freedom, tolerance and compassion to stand up for them.

First published in the West Briton 22/11/18

We must ensure all disabled people who want to work have the opportunity to do so

It’s great news to see there are now more disabled people in work than out, and over the last five years 973,000 disabled people have entered employment. This is really encouraging, but we know there’s more to do to build on this progress and to ensure that all disabled people who want to work have the opportunity to do so.

Key to our approach is changing people’s minds, by showcasing the benefits of having a diverse workforce and the contribution that people with disabilities can make in any workplace.

The Government’s free employment scheme, Disability Confident is fast approaching the milestone of 10,000 businesses having signed up, an increase of over 4,000 in the last year alone. New research, published this week, shows that half of all Disability Confident employers have recruited at least one disabled person since joining the scheme, rising to 66% amongst larger employers. It’s great to see the scheme creating real opportunities for disabled people.

The Disability Confident scheme is intended to lead employers on a journey, so they will continue to enhance their disability employment ‘offer’. We commissioned research to assess what exactly is driving forward behavioural change among Disability Confident employers, while highlighting areas for improvement.

What really struck me about the results were the reasons employers listed for adopting more inclusive recruitment practices to attract more disabled staff. ‘Widening the pool of talent’ was the biggest reason UK businesses gave, while one in five simply said it ‘seemed like the right thing to do’.

With around a fifth of the working age population living with a disability or health condition, it’s important that we empower employers to be open in discussing any misconceptions they may have, to ensure they can discuss with experts and their peers how employing a disabled person can benefit their business.

We want to make life easier for disabled jobseekers, which is why they are now able to search for jobs displaying the Disability Confident badge on our new Find A Job website, with more than 8,000 Disability Confident vacancies currently listed.

Tailored support which enables disabled people to reach their full potential at work is key to our approach and Access to Work scheme, provides people with up to £57,200 a year to help with any workplace adjustments they may need. This can include assistive technology, transport or interpreters. Recent statistics show that last year we supported a record number of people through the scheme, including more young people and those with learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

Our own research, published today, shows that Access to Work is highly valued by users, but we are not complacent: we know there is always more to do to improve the support provided. That’s why we’re taking forward a range of measures to evolve the scheme so it supports as many people as possible.

We will be extending eligibility for the scheme to those with drug and alcohol addiction, and earlier this year we announced a new Tech Fund – making it easier for disabled employees to benefit from the innovation assistive technology can enable.

And we’re also introducing a new Access to Work workplace adjustment ‘passport’. This will provide people with a record of their adjustments so that a new employer will have a clear understanding of their requirements.

I’m committed to ensuring that people feel their needs are understood and are dealt with sensitively, and that’s at the heart of the Government’s agenda.

That’s why we’ve launched disability-specific specialist teams, who offer customers with impairments such as hearing or sight loss tailored support. We’re also taking forward improvements to the Access to Work digital service.

We know that employers and disabled people themselves know best what they need and can identify any gaps which need to be addressed. That’s why we’re listening, and constantly improving our services.

First published in PoliticsHome 16/11/18


Remembering the Great War

On Sunday our community came together as one to pause and to remember all those who died during the Great War and all those who have died in conflicts that have happened since.

For everyone, different events will stand out. I felt that the creativity, compassion and care taken in acts of remembrance in this constituency were magnificent. From the sand portraits on Perranporth Beach to the poppy memorial in Portloe. From the hand-made poppies dropped from the tower inside Truro cathedral and those adorning the trees in Kimberley Park, to the silent vigil in Zelah and the lone piper in St Mawes. The floral tributes, bells ringing out from our church towers and the re-dedication and creation of new memorials, all in their own way declared our ardent desire never to forget those that made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedom, peace and way of life.

We have sought to commemorate the war in many ways over the past four years. The high profile events have been complemented by an extensive range of cultural and educational activities. In 2012 the government established the 14-18 NOW cultural programme to work with artists to tell these important stories through the mediums of culture and art. There has been a particular focus on engaging children and young people, with events including the Great War school debate series and school battlefield tours. More than 35 million people have engaged with the centenary, including 7.5 million young people under the age of 25.

Over the past four years I have really enjoyed discovering more of our local history, visiting Pendennis Castle and the local museums and history groups that have so imaginatively told the story of local people and communities during the Great War, including those who went to fight and those who were left behind. Poignant stories that had been forgotten until now. BBC Radio Cornwall did a great job in capturing so many of these local stories.

As part of the programme, the government has sought to highlight the enormous contribution made by those who came to our nation’s aid from across the world. Some 2.5 million men and women from the Commonwealth answered the call to fight, with 200,000 laying down their lives. If you haven’t yet visited the Commonwealth War Graves Commission graves in our local grave yards I encourage you to do so. They are beautifully kept and online information tells us about those buried here from all over the Commonwealth, from Canada to India.

On Friday, I am looking forward to watching Edward Rowe in his new play Hirith that explores the role of Cornish Miners in the trenches. Many poems, pieces of music and works of art have been created to tell the story of the people who came from all walks of life from every part of our community to play their part in the Great War. Over the past four years, together I think we have all done our best to remember them.

First published in the West Briton 15/11/18

Purple Tuesday

Shopping is an integral part of our day-to-day lives, from heading to the supermarket to get the groceries to looking for gifts for loved ones on your local high street.

Sadly, there are often barriers that prevent shopping from being an enjoyable experience for disabled people.

A poll by disability organisation Purple found that more than half of the disabled people they surveyed were concerned about overcrowding. A similar proportion said they had left a store or abandoned a purchase because of a poor customer experience.

Many of us often choose to shop online thanks to advances in technology, but poor access can extend to the internet. For example, some people miss deliveries because they haven’t been given enough time to answer the door.

While these issues are felt even more acutely in the fast-approaching peak Christmas shopping period, inadequate access isn’t limited to the festive season.

A lack of provision of facilities such as Changing Places toilets can mean that disabled people might just choose to stay at home, rather than getting out and socialising, while poor staff awareness can make shopping more hassle than it’s worth.

Businesses that don’t make reasonable adjustments to accommodate disabled customers not only risk breaking the law, but they are also missing out on the £249 billion spending power of disabled people and their families.

In my experience, most businesses aren’t intentionally excluding their disabled customers – they just need more guidance to help them become more inclusive.

That’s why I’m joining forces with Purple for the UK’s first ever accessible shopping day on Tuesday 13 November. The day will see retailers – in store and online – introducing new measures to make shopping a more inclusive experience, sending a powerful message that they care about all their customers and that their business matters.

It’s often the small changes that can make a big difference to people’s experiences. Providing staff with disability awareness training, becoming Disability Confident and having clear walkways can all help improve the shopping experience for disabled customers.

More than 100 retailers are already involved with Purple Tuesday, including some of the UK’s most recognised names such as Sainsbury’s, Marks and Spencer and Argos.

Purple Tuesday is a significant step forward in showing retailers how important it is to recognise the needs of their disabled customers. By working together with disability charities and businesses, I’m confident that we can create the culture shift that is needed to ensure disabled people no longer miss out.

Find out more about Purple Tuesday at www.purpletuesday.org.uk, and Disability Confident at https://disabilityconfident.campaign.gov.uk/. You can share your experiences on social media using #PurpleTuesday.

First published in Able magazine


Welcoming the Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Act

There is so much happening in Parliament that doesn’t get reported that I have decided periodically to use this column to highlight some of that work. Work that will improve the lives of my constituents and people across Cornwall and the UK. 

The Parental Bereavement (Pay and Leave) Act was introduced to Parliament in July 2017 as a Private Member’s Bill by Kevin Hollinrake, Conservative MP for Thirsk and Malton, with government support. It received Royal Assent on 13 September 2018 and is expected to come into force in 2020. It will give all employed parents a day-one right to 2 weeks’ leave if they lose a child under the age of 18 or suffer a stillbirth from 24 weeks of pregnancy. Eligible parents will be able to claim statutory pay for this leave. This is the first law of its kind in the UK. 

Recognising that the law needs to cater for a variety of family circumstances, the government has confirmed that those who are eligible will be widened beyond parents to all primary carers for children, including adopters, foster parents and guardians. 

It will also cover more informal groups such as kinship carers, who may be a close relative or family friend and have assumed responsibility for the care of the child in the absence of the parents. 

Dealing with the loss of a child is an awful tragedy which people will deal with differently. It is important this new law is designed so that people are given the space and respect to grieve in their own way. 

Following feedback from parents and employers, the government last week published its response to the public consultation and announced further details about how the new right will work: leave can be taken either in 1 block (of 1 or 2 weeks) or as 2 separate blocks of 1 week: it can be taken within a 56 week window from the child’s death so as to allow time for important moments such as anniversaries; notice requirements will be flexible so that leave can be taken without prior notice very soon after the child’s death; employers will not be entitled to request a copy of death certificate to use as evidence. 

We are very fortunate to have wonderful local organisations that can support people at such a difficult time. Once such organisation that I have visited is Penhaligon’s Friends, a Cornish charity supporting bereaved children, young people, parents and carers throughout the county. They offer children and young people the chance to meet others and share their experiences, as well as practical resources for children and parents. 

Over the years the organisation has grown and there are now 5 full time and 4 part time staff members and a dedicated team of over 80 volunteers. They have increased their partnership working with other agencies, thus broadening the opportunities for Cornish children and families to receive optimum support. This essential work also helps to prevent mental ill health that can sometimes accompany bereavement. 

 First published in the West Briton 08/11/18

Welcoming the 2018 Budget

The hard work and sacrifice of many local people making their contribution to tackle the huge hole in our public finances left by the last Labour government is beginning to pay off. Remember the note left for us in 2010, “I’m afraid there is no money”.  

On Monday, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility gave its verdict on our economy. It was a positive picture with public finances now under control. We are no longer borrowing to pay for our day to day expenditure on public services. As long as we stick with our sensible and balanced approach to managing public finances our national debt is forecast to fall each year. The economy is growing. We have record levels of employment and wages are rising.  

As our economy is growing the Chancellor has committed to sustained increased investment in our public services, most notably the NHS, and is providing Cornwall Council with additional funding for children and adult social care. New investment to support people of all ages experiencing mental ill health and funding for air ambulances will make a real difference here. 

I know that there are many local people who work very hard and have felt the pinch over the past eight years. So I am pleased that the Chancellor continues to increase the National Living Wage that we introduced by nearly 5 per cent, from £7.83 to £8.21 in April. This will deliver a £690 annual pay rise to a full-time worker, taking the total annual pay rise since its introduction to £2,750.  

We are also fulfilling our promise to cut income tax one year early, so that people keep more of what they earn. We will raise the personal allowance to £12,500, saving a typical basic rate taxpayer £130 compared to 2018-19 and £1,205 compared to 2010-11. 

We are freezing fuel duty for the ninth year, saving the average car driver a cumulative £1,000 since April 2010 and local businesses even more, as well as cutting business rates for local small businesses.  

I am pleased to see some additional investment in our local schools. This year, on average, each primary will receive £10,000 and each secondary £50,000 to purchase equipment to support opportunities for young people. Cornwall is one of five areas that will benefit from a share of £200 million to pilot innovative approaches to deploy full fibre internet to primary schools, with a voucher scheme for homes and businesses nearby.  

As a campaigner for life-long learning, I am pleased that the Budget allocates £100 million for the first phase of the National Retraining Scheme. This will include a new careers guidance service with expert advice to help people identify work opportunities in their area.  

The Clean Growth agenda of our Industrial Strategy is promoting sustainable growth and tackling climate change so I want to ensure local people already in work have the opportunity to improve their health and wellbeing by changing careers and join growing businesses that are offering well paid employment.  

First published in the West Briton 01/11/18