Military Action in Syria

I face many challenges as your Member of Parliament, the most significant is deciding whether UK military intervention in another country should be undertaken. I fundamentally believe in our values enshrined in the rule of law and that, wherever possible, diplomacy should be used to resolve conflict. I know that any action has consequences, sometimes unforeseen, but so too does inaction.

This week we debated the recent decision to use military force to degrade the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability.

It is now almost 100 years since the treaty to prohibit use of chemical weapons. We have seen nation after nation sign up to this global consensus. The universal abhorrence of chemical weapons and the programme of destruction of declared stockpiles is a considerable achievement.

In 2013 the Syrian regime committed to destroy its chemical arsenal while Russia – the mentor of the Syrian regime – guaranteed to the process overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

The National Security Council of the United Nations, the Prime Minister and Cabinet have seen a significant body of information that indicates that the Assad regime was behind the chemical attack at Douma on April 7 that killed about 75 people and resulted in hundreds of casualties.

The Douma massacre is part of a pattern of use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. International investigators mandated by the UN Security Council have found the Assad regime responsible for using chemical weapons in four separate attacks since 2014.

The military action undertaken by the UK on Saturday was carried out to alleviate further humanitarian suffering by degrading the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons capability and deterring their use. The legal basis for this intervention has been published. Many countries support this action. In degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability the Prime Minister made her intentions clear – we want to do what we can to protect Syrian people from chemical weapons.

These carefully targeted and calibrated strikes minimising harm to Syrians were not designed to intervene in the Syrian civil war or to effect regime change.

At a time of understandable tension in our relations with Russia it has been important to stress that this action does not entail an attempt to frustrate Russian strategic objectives in Syria. 
This does not represent an escalation of UK or Western involvement in Syria.

I don’t believe the global community can simply turn a blind eye to the use of chemical weapons. Along with partners, and as members of the EU, we have tried non-military interventions, including peace talks and sanctions.

The UN has considered resolutions but Russia has repeatedly shielded the Syrian regime from investigation and censure, vetoing six separate UN Security Council resolutions, including the UN mandated Investigative Mechanism set up to attribute responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Of course we must continue our humanitarian and diplomatic effort to support the Syrian people and to secure a political solution to the civil war in Syria but we cannot allow the use of chemical weapons with impunity.

First published in the West Briton 19/04/18

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Welcoming Government investment in the South West

The government has confirmed £866million of funding towards housing projects across the country last week, and it was great to see the South West receive a sizeable chunk of the pot.

Ten projects here in Devon and Cornwall were given over £55m towards vital infrastructure which will pave the way for thousands of much-needed new homes to be built more quickly.

The local projects to benefit, via the Housing Infrastructure Fund, are Hayle Harbour (£5.6m), West Carclaze near St Austell (£2.3m), North Prospect in Plymouth (£2.8m), Dawlish (£4.2m), Greater Exeter (£3.7m), Junction 28 of the M5 at Cullompton (£10m), the Eastern Urban Extension at Tiverton (£8.2m), Landkey near Barnstaple (£2m), the Southern Extension at Ilfracombe (£6.5m) and the North-South Relief Road at Axminster (£10m).

Elsewhere, five projects in Somerset received £28m and five in Dorset were given £16.5m. Across the whole of the South West, the government allocated over £140m towards 27 projects.

This investment in our region is most welcome as it will help to deliver the homes we desperately need and improve communities through good infrastructure. I am delighted that more social homes will be built too, delivering genuinely affordable home for local people.

Also last week, it was reassuring to read the letter by Transport Secretary Chris Grayling which confirmed that improving the rail line at Dawlish was his “number one national priority”, and that he was hoping for “a planned solution as quickly as practical”, backed by £15m of funding.

Mr Grayling made a number of other commitments regarding rail transport in the South West, including an instruction to GWR to draw up plans to introduce regular passenger services between Exeter and Okehampton.

He also confirmed track upgrades and maintenance, re-signalling between Totnes and Plymouth to enable more frequent services, £9m of funding to enhance the sleeper trains to Penzance, progress of flood resilience work at Cowley Bridge and on the Exeter to Waterloo line and an assurance to look at other ways to speed up journey times.

The improvements to Truro station continue with resurfacing and improved lighting of the carpark.

This summer we can all look forward to the introduction of new high-speed Intercity Express trains on the Great Western route, with extra capacity at peak times.

We shouldn’t forget that the government is also in the process of consulting on several major road upgrades in the South West, including a new section A30 between Carland Cross and Chiverton Cross in Cornwall, the A358 near Taunton, the A303 near Yeovil and the A303 near Stonehenge.

Once all the work is complete, motorists will have a direct dual carriageway or motorway route from Camborne to London and the South East, without the need to go via the M5 and M4 around Bristol.

Meanwhile, at the Budget in November the government committed £79m towards the planned £85m, four-mile link road between St Austell and the A30.

I am delighted that the Hall For Cornwall (HFC) has secured a £2m investment from the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), the last piece of public funding required to deliver a £20m rebuild of its venue which will bring jobs, economic growth and world class culture to Cornwall.

The exciting project will see the auditorium increase to 1,354 seats, enabling HFC to attract top West End productions, promote local talent and revitalize the night-time economy of Truro.

The LEP’s investment comes from the Government’s Local Growth Fund and will support the creation of 1156m2 of cutting edge workspace to nurture Cornwall’s booming Creative Industries sector. This sum is in addition to £2 million I secured from the Treasury. A Creative Tech Hub will include support for post-graduates, new talent and start-up businesses to create a new digital and creative cluster.  A further £2m of European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) has already been secured for this element of the project.

As Julien Boast, HFC’s CEO and Creative Director commented: “Cornwall deserves a theatre that will continue to inspire, educate and engage and bring the best productions in the country to Cornwall.”

I am delighted that this project will now be going ahead. It will be a major boost to the Cornish economy and culture and I am proud that this Government, along with Arts Council England, Cornwall Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, European Regional Development Funding (ERDF) and, most recently, the Cornwall and Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) have been able to work together to bring much needed investment to Cornwall.

The creative economy is growing, it already employs 27,000 people in our region and we want to be the destination of choice for creative businesses. The Creative Industries are now worth over £90bn to the UK and this growth is reflected in the Cornish economy, with the number of creative businesses increasing by 26% between 2011 and 2016. The redevelopment of HFC will create a cluster of start-up businesses that will nurture creative and entrepreneurial talent and, most importantly, retain it in Cornwall.

Work to rebuild HFC will begin in July 2018 with the new building being unveiled 2020. During construction, HFC will host a series of open days to welcome the community to view the build’s progression.

It’s great to see the government backing Cornwall and the South West.

First published by Peter Booth in the Western Morning News 12/02/2018

Talent for hospitality employers served by fine dining experience

Young people with learning disabilities have teamed up with four top chefs to prepare and serve a fine dining experience for hospitality leaders from across the South West. The dinner took place last Thursday evening at The Castle Hotel, Taunton, one of the most beautiful and historical 4-star hotels in the region.

The event enabled hospitality employers to experience the untapped talent their industry badly needs; a sector that is predicted to create more than 500,000 jobs in the next 5 years.

Workers with learning disabilities form a readily available employment group as one of the many hurdles they face is a far higher than typical unemployment rate – it stands at just 5.8% for paid work. By stark contrast 73% of Foxes’ leavers over the past 3 years (2015 to 2017) entered employment.

A joint partnership between Foxes Academy, (a hospitality and catering training hotel for young people with learning disabilities) and The Castle Hotel, employers were asked to pledge work opportunities and sign up to the Government’s Disability Confident programme.

The Castle’s Head Chef, Liam Finnegan has been an inspiration to the young Foxes’ students, aged between 17 and 25. He has encouraged them by offering work experience placements and taken on a Commis Chef with learning disabilities who trained in the hotel’s kitchen to NVQ Level 2 and was awarded ‘Outstanding Individual’ as part of Adult Learners’ Week.

The starter was prepared under the watchful eye of Philip Corrick, Executive Chef and Howard Bisset, Head Chef both with The RAC Club, Liam worked with the students to cook the main course and Werner Hartholt, Resort Development Chef at Butlins supported them to prepare dessert.

All Chefs kindly donated their time and ingredients to raise awareness with their peers about the economic and cultural benefits of employing a diverse team. Welcome drinks were generously provided by Exmoor’s Wicked Wolf Gin and Quantock Brewery.

Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, Sarah Newton, said: “We want to see one million more disabled people in work by 2027, and it’s crucial that the hospitality industry is not missing out on the skills, talents and personal qualities disabled people can bring to the workplace. “This event goes to show that there is a huge pool of talent out there, and I urge all employers across the industry and beyond to help ensure the opportunities are there for everyone to reach their full potential.”

Hospitality & Catering News would like to congratulate all of the ‘Foxes’ that took part, Sarah Newton and the Government’s Disability Confident programme, the chefs… Liam Finnegan, Philip Corrick, Werner Hartholt and Hoard Bisset. The Castle Hotel, Taunton, Exmoor’s Wicked Wolf Gin and Quantock Brewery and of course the whole team at The Foxes Academy.

We report all too often on the people and skills shortages in our industry, so we are delighted to report on the work done by The Foxes Academy and their partners. The training of young people with learning disabilities to prepare for and enter a career in hospitality and catering is much needed.

First published in Hospitality and Catering News 02/02/18

Providing free Debt Advice

Every week I speak with constituents seeking advice on a wide range of everyday issues that are effecting them and their families. Many are concerned about the issue of debt, and are seeking quality, free, independent debt advice. Some want guidance on pension options. Some are worried about pensions cold calling to their families and are worried about financial scams. Others think we should have a breathing space to stop debt getting out of control.

All these legitimate issues were addressed this week in the House of Commons, as the Government’s new bill, the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill, had its second reading.

With the success of auto-enrolment in work place pensions, resulting in nine million new savers, this government has helped create a whole new generation of savers, including many young people who are now saving for the first time.

As well as making it easier for people to save for their future, we want to provide high quality, impartial debt advice. Last year, the Government’s Money Advice Service supported almost 500,000 people across the country with debt advice sessions. But we can and will do more. We already provide pensions guidance for people across the UK through Pension Wise and The Pensions Advisory Service but, on an agreed cross-party basis, it has been agreed that merging these three organisations into one new Single Financial Guidance Body is the right way forward for better free services and greater coverage. This development has been welcomed by the Citizens Advice Service. I know from my close working with our local CAB that advice about debt remains the most sought after type of advice they provide to local people.

We know that free, high quality, independent advice is often most effective when it is delivered at important moments in someone’s life – such as when someone leaves school, gets their first job, has a baby or retires. But we need fundamentally to change the way people think about their finances, so that people more regularly seek help and guidance throughout their life. That is why we are pioneering the mid-life MOT, which would introduce a financial stock-take for older workers. This would enable people to make informed choices around savings, retirement and their pension together. And if they do get into debt problems a breathing space allows them to address the problems before they get out of control.

And, finally, we are also banning pensions cold calling, which has become a concern for many. There are tweaks and amendments that will be needed to sort the Bill into its final form but this is a Government that has identified problems and is working on the solutions.

The Government wants to open up free, impartial, debt advice and pensions guidance to more people. The new Single Financial Guidance Body will do just that, helping people to manage their finances better throughout their life.

First published in the West Briton 25/01/18

Campaigning to keep cancer services in Cornwall

I am sure that we were not the only family toasting absent friends on Christmas Day. Sadly, some time ago my mum died of cancer. I know how important access to high quality cancer services are to families living in the Duchy. I remember the strain on my mum and dad, having to travel to Plymouth for some of her radiotherapy treatment. My father starts radiotherapy at Treliske in January.

NHS England are currently consulting on a new model for radiotherapy services in England. The consultation is seeking feedback on a new specification for adult radiotherapy services.

Radiotherapy is a core part of modern cancer treatment. It can cure cancers, can assist in alleviating symptoms and is cost effective. It is second only to surgery in its effectiveness in treating cancer and around 40% of patients who are cured receive radiotherapy as part of or the whole of their treatment. The development of the proposed service specification sits alongside NHS England’s £130 million investment in radiotherapy equipment which was announced last year.

The specification has been developed by talking to doctors, nurses, radiographers and public and patient engagement groups and was informed by a period of stakeholder engagement in 2016. The aim of the specification is to encourage radiotherapy providers to work together in Networks to concentrate expertise and improve pathways for patients requiring radical radiotherapy for the less common and rarer cancers. This will help to increase access to more innovative radiotherapy treatments, increase clinical trial recruitment and make sure radiotherapy equipment is fully utilised. There is no intention to reduce the number of radiotherapy providers, nor is it considered to be a likely outcome of these proposals.

NHS England is keen to receive feedback and answer your questions on the proposals through the consultation. You might want to read the Radiotherapy Service Specification and Consultation Guide and Impact Assessment.

The consultation ends on 24 January 2018. You can email: england.npoc-cancer@nhs.net or write to:   Radiotherapy Consultation, NHS England, Floor 3B, Skipton House, 80 London Road, London, SE1 6LH.

I have been in touch with a number of constituents who are worried about the possibility of some services moving from Cornwall to Plymouth or Exeter in Devon.

I share their concerns and have written to NHS England reminding them of Cornwall’s special geography. I appreciate that centres of excellence based in urban areas with large populations can achieve better outcomes for patients, especially rare conditions. However, if people have to make long journeys on a daily basis over a many weeks for their treatment, I am concerned that the improved patient outcomes that motivate NHS England to centralise services won’t be realised. Long and difficult journeys might prevent people from accessing treatment. Considerable extra journey times would make combining caring with employment responsibilities more challenging too. There would also be considerable extra patient transport costs for individuals, their families and the NHS.

It can be a long journey from Penzance to Truro, let alone Plymouth.

First published in the West Briton 28/12/17

Remembering those who died defending our freedom and values

Like countless others, I spent time last week remembering the sacrifice of so many people who gave their lives or have been damaged defending our freedom and values. Values that we can too easily take for granted today.

The poignancy of participating in our communal act of remembrance is not diminished as the years pass. I am heartened each year by the increasing number of young people taking part, sometimes wearing the medals of their ancestors.

Next year we will commemorate 100 years of the ending of the First World War and plans to mark this special occasion are well underway. When a campaign for volunteers was launched in August 1914, thousands answered the call to fight. Among them were 250,000 boys and young men under the age of 19. A concert in Birmingham will remember their stories, they will be given a voice in words and music by 250,000 youngsters of today. What a memorable occasion that will be.

Some say our wearing of the poppy, participation in the collective acts of Remembrance or laying of wreaths is glorifying war. I disagree. It is essential that we remember and learn from the past. Sadly, there are always those at home and abroad who will seek to undermine or destroy the morals and values of our shared society, of freedom and justice, of compassion and fairness.

While we work for peace at home and around the world, we need to be prepared to defend ourselves and our allies. I am very grateful to members of our armed services who serve at home and abroad who are prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice to keep us safe. Their families too. I am also very grateful to the many local charities who support veterans and their families to recover from their experience.

First published in the West Briton

Celebrating World Mental Health Day

Last week, I joined World Mental Health Day, in a global expression of how far we have come in understanding mental illness and breaking down stigma.

Last week it was reported that Local Clinical Commissioners spent £9.7 billion on mental health this year – £574 million more than last year.

The Cabinet also discussed plans to train a million people in basic mental health first aid skills – the first country in the world to have this scale of ambition. We will continue to invest in NHS mental health services, training more professionals, aiming to treat more people.

Applications were also opened for a new £15 million fund to improve support for people who experience a range of mental health conditions that put them at risk of experiencing an acute mental health crisis.

The Beyond Places of Safety fund is the successor to the original Places of Safety programme, which was established, alongside the Crisis Care Concordat, to confront one of the quiet scandals within mental health system – namely the thousands of people left in a police cell following a detention under the Mental Health Act.

Since then, the ingenuity and partnerships forged between statutory and voluntary organisations under local Crisis Care agreements has seen the number detained in police custody following a mental health crisis drop by over 80 per cent over the last five years.

Simple innovations – driven by passionate voluntary sector organisations, working in partnership with the NHS – are making a huge difference to how people are treated when they become acutely unwell. I hope that local organisations will work together and consider applying to the new Beyond Places of Safety Fund.

There may be no magic bullet to stem the rising tide of mental ill health – but innovative community initiatives can make a make a real difference to keeping people safe.

First published in the West Briton