International Day for Persons with Disabilities

Monday was the International Day for Persons with Disabilities. It is a United Nations-led day, and the theme this year is “Empowering persons with disabilities and ensuring inclusiveness and equality”. 

To mark this occasion, I launched a new stakeholder engagement forum to bring the voices of disabled people closer to Government, especially those living outside London. I also launched a call for new Sector Champions to improve accessibility of services for disabled people. 

I often meet disabled people who tell me about the challenges they face in work, using services, or simply trying to buy goods in a store or online. For retailers, this is a lost opportunity as they are missing out on £249 billion annual spend of disabled people and their families. 

I believe these initiatives will contribute to delivering our vision to create a society that works for everyone, where all can participate fully and be included, and to our progress on implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. 

The Network will create face to face and online forums for disabled people to share their views and experiences about policies and services that affect disabled people and will complement existing stakeholder relationships across Government. I hope local people will join our regional network. 

To bring about change, my Ministerial Retail Forum was instrumental in supporting the UK’s first ‘Purple Tuesday’ on 13 November 2018. It was funded and organised by the disability organisation Purple. Over 500 organisations signed up to take part, of which 50 were disability organisations. Hundreds of thousands of retail staff engaged in accessibility and inclusivity initiatives, supported by a range of campaign resources to help improve retail awareness of what good customer service means for disabled people. The venture was popular with the public too: it trended on Twitter and was reported by many major news and broadcast networks. 

The new Sector Champions for the countryside and heritage, product design, website accessibility, fashion, technology, food and drink will build on the work of my current 14 Sector Champions who work across diverse sectors – from music to insurance, and from arts and culture to transport.  They use their influential status as leaders to drive improvements to the accessibility and quality of services and facilities in their sector. 

Finally, I was pleased to work with Channel 4 and Purple Space, who have, together with a range of Disability Confident employers, produced a short film entitled “I don’t work properly”.  The film features disabled colleagues from a range of Disability Confident organisations talking about disability employment, along with Last Leg presenter and comedian Adam Hills. Channel 4 has created a destination to accompany the film and act as an information hub for those interested in disability employment challenges. You can also view the film at: 


There are still too many areas where disabled people are regularly excluded

Imagine you went to the shops tomorrow and the shutters were down. Now imagine you tried to buy a concert ticket but the website was closed for business. Would you be happy?

Of course you wouldn’t. But for thousands of disabled people in this country getting access to services is a trial of endurance. Spending billions of pounds to boost our economy is a trial of endurance.

That’s why today, International Day for Persons with Disabilities, I’m focused on a top priority – to stop disabled people from being excluded from the everyday activities that many people take for granted, while also helping businesses realise that it’s in their interest to include their disabled customers.

With the spending power of disabled people and their households – the Purple Pound – estimated at almost £250 billion each year, it’s a no brainer.

Our sector champions are tackling the issues facing disabled consumers across every area of their lives, from seeing themselves represented in TV adverts to ensuring stress-free train travel.

Our music champion, Suzanne Bull, has launched a new industry taskforce aimed at improving the experience for deaf and disabled customers when booking tickets for live music events.

Meanwhile, our insurance champion Johnny Timpson is bringing together representatives from the insurance industry, regulatory bodies and charities for the first time to look at how to make the sector more accessible to disabled people. This is a great step forward, and begins to tackle an issue disabled people and my constituents often raise with me, that they are denied insurance or charged a premium that they believe does not reflect the true impact of their condition.

And last month I worked with Mike Adams, CEO of Purple, and our retail champion Samantha Sen to launch Purple Tuesday, the UK’s first ever accessible shopping day. It was a huge success, with hundreds of thousands of retail staff, up and down the country, taking action to demonstrate their commitment to including all of their customers.

But there are still too many areas where disabled people are regularly excluded.

Just last week a Citizens Advice survey found that almost one in three disabled people have missed a home delivery because they were not given enough time to get to the door.

And we know that disabled people are almost ten times as likely to report being limited in taking part in leisure activities compared to non-disabled people.

So today, I have announced that I want to appoint six new champions to build on the successes we’ve seen so far.

The new champions will cover the technology, food and drink, website accessibility, fashion, countryside and heritage and product design sectors.

By showing other businesses the importance of making disabled customers a priority, our new champions will ensure disabled people aren’t missing out on the experiences and services that form an integral part of our everyday lives, whether that’s socialising with friends or keeping up with the latest trends.

Access is inextricably linked to opportunity, and it’s important that everyone plays their part in ensuring disabled consumers can spend their money wherever and whenever they want to – just like everyone else.

First published in Politics Home 03/12/18

Looking after our high-streets this Christmas

Christmas always starts for me when I join the throngs in Falmouth listening to the Harmony Choir. Everyone will have their own festive favourites from the live nativities and Santa runs to some welcome innovations such as the Science at Christmas event at the Poly, enabled by Exeter University.  

Christmas shopping is such a treat with so many wonderful shops in Falmouth and Penryn where we can buy our Christmas presents and locally produced festive food and drink. There is no doubt that Falmouth and Penryn high streets are a crucial part of our communities and local economies.  

However, the rapidly changing behaviour of many customers presents a significant challenge for retailers in our town centres and I am pleased that the government announced in the recent budget more action to help our local town centres to evolve.   

Our Plan for the High Street was one of the announcements.  From April 2019 small retailers will benefit from a business rates discount, cutting their bills by a third for two years. The discount will be available to occupied retail properties with a rateable value below £51,000. Up to 90% of all retail properties will benefit, subject to state aid limits. This represents a maximum saving of around £8,000 per property per year. A retailer with an annual bill of £16,203 in 2019-20 (based on a rateable value of £33,000) will save £5,401 a year. In total, the relief is worth almost £900 million to retailers. The relief will be available to a range of retail properties including, but not limited to, shops, restaurants, pubs and hairdressers and local newspapers. 

To support the transformation of the high street, the government will create a £675 million Future High Streets Fund which will support the establishment of a new High Streets Task Force to help local areas make their high streets and town centres fit for the future. 

This will provide hands-on support to local areas to develop innovative strategies to help high streets evolve, connect local areas to relevant experts and share best practice. 

The fund will also support the regeneration of heritage high streets, helping Historic England restore the historic buildings that make our high streets special and become destinations that people want to visit.  

It will also support community groups looking for affordable space by trialling a service to register empty properties. The government is taking further action to strengthen vital community assets, including a 100% business rates relief for public lavatories, many of which are run by our town and parish councils. This is something I have worked with Falmouth Town Council to achieve. Cornwall Council will be fully compensated for loss of income as a result of business rates measures. This may seem like a small thing but it will save our local councils vital taxpayers’ money.  

The government will also trial a register of empty commercial properties to help prospective retailers to find empty properties and help local people tackle fragmented ownership on their high street. 

While the business rates discount will provide up front support to the high street, the government is taking long term action to help high streets and town centres evolve and keep up with changing consumer behaviour so that they can remain at the heart of local communities. The £675 million fund will also invest in improvements to town centre infrastructure, including increasing access to high streets, reducing congestion, supporting redevelopment around high streets and enabling housing and new workspaces to be created. 

The government will consult on modernising planning rules to ensure that they support the transformation of the high street. There will be two consultations on supporting the conversion of commercial properties into offices or homes and the implementation of new mixed-use business models that could form the vibrant high street of the future and on how to support local areas to use other planning tools more effectively. 

It just remains for me to wish you a very happy Christmas and a healthy and happy 2019.  

First published in the Falmouth Wave December 2018 edition


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