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Rising school exclusions and Alternative Provision – the case for reform

Increasing numbers of pupils are being excluded from schools – with special education needs (SEN) being over six times more likely to be excluded. I have written previously about the

Extending the Blue Badge scheme

In the biggest overhaul since the 1970s, the Government has announced the extension of the Blue Badge scheme to include people with hidden disabilities (which includes autism and mental health

A better deal for public sector workers

This week the Government announced the biggest public sector pay rise in almost 10 years – to help recognise the vital work that teachers, the police, armed forces, prison officers,

Investing in Special Educational Needs

This week the Government announced a multi-million pound investment in state-of-the-art facilities for children with special educational needs. Children only get one chance at an education and they deserve the

A fair deal for Nurses

This week the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt MP, set out plans that will see wage increases of at least 6.5 per cent for over 1.1 million NHS workers in England.

Supporting the next generation at school

It is crucial that we properly fund our schools to support our next generation. During the election their was clear concern raised over the level of per pupil funding. So it is welcome news that the Government is protecting the core schools budget and are giving more money to schools.

The schools budget increased by three per cent in real terms between 2010-11 and 2014-15; and is at its highest level on record this year at over £40 billion. With an additional £1.3 billion over the next two years – meaning funding will be £2.6 billion higher in 2019-20. This will mean no reduction in per pupil funding.

But money alone is not enough, the standard of education at our schools must be strong. There are 1.8 million more pupils being taught in good or outstanding schools since 2010. The number has increased from 4.8 million in 2010 to 6.6 million in November 2016.

Campaigns for ‘Fairer schools funding’ have been listened to – backed by additional investment – will deliver the biggest improvement to the school funding system for over a decade. It will mean an increase in the basic amount every pupil will get, protected funding for those with high needs, and will ensure every local authority is in a position to
give schools a cash increase.

Trusting our teachers to get on with the job they enjoy – the Government has given schools more freedoms – so that teachers can do what’s right for their pupils. This means
headteachers, who know their pupils best, have more power over their curriculum, staffing and budgets. There are 5,889 more academies and 344 more free schools than in May 2010.

This raft of measures means that we can have confidence, whilst not being complacent, that school education is going in the right direction.

Protecting our ocean life from microbeads

The Conservative Government will introduce legislation to implement a ban on the use of microbeads in both cosmetic and personal care products. This is part of an effort to restore the health of our marine environment. For example, the 5p plastic bag charge has reduced use by an incredible nine billion+ bags – enough to wrap around the world more than 100 times.

Legislation will be brought forward later this year to ban the use of microbeads in personal care products. Adding tiny pieces of plastic to products like face washes and body scrubs is incredibly damaging to our sea life – they can swallow them – but cannot digest them.
Already we are seeing retailers and manufacturers are already taking action to phase out microbeads.

With the legislation, which will be brought forward later this year, will make sure that in future microbeads will have no place in personal care products, like shower gels and face scrubs, that end up going down the drain.



Crossrail 2 takes a step closer

This week Crossrail 2 took a step closer with the Transport Minister, Chris Grayling, stating; “We support Crossrail 2, but given its price tag we have to ensure that we get this right. We have agreed to work with the Mayor of London together on it over the coming months to develop plans that are as strong as possible, so that the public gets an affordable scheme that is fair to the UK taxpayer.”

The next step should be a fresh public consultation to help gather views to improve the scheme and clarify the position around the safeguarded route.

Crossrail 2 is the key to unlocking 200,000 new jobs and 200,000 new houses. Clearly building transport infrastructure has the potential to drive economic growth, create jobs and spread wealth across the country.

The project will cost around £30 billion pounds, so the Government has set the expectation that London needs to pay half of the upfront construction costs.

Increasing demand is placing increasing pressure on the existing infrastructure, a TfL study showed rthe capital’s transport network will be so overcrowded by the 2030s that Tube stations could be forced to bring in drastic measures such as permanent one-way systems or regular closures.

Crossrail 2 plan has been nine years in the making – lets press on and realise this vital infrastructure project. 

An action plan for tackling acid attacks

London, especially, has been hit hard by the scourge of acid attacks. Reported figures show a 74% rise in attacks year on year. A third of the attacks last year happened in the borough of Newnham.

One of the key challenges has been the ease of acquiring these dangerous substances over the counter – often with no questions asked.

The Police have expressed a concern that it is becoming the preferred weapon of choice for robbery gangs. Presumably due to carrying a knife bringing a mandatory sentence – whereas carrying acid does not.

Already leaders in the retail sector have taken action. Stores including B&Q and Homebase have stopped selling sulphuric acid products and the British Retail Consortium support the most toxic products only being available on licence.

This is in addition to the Home Office carrying out an urgent review. Covering whether the CPS needs to change guidance so that corrosive substances are included in the classification for dangerous weapons. Legislative change could come through the Poisons Act 1972 to cover corrosive substances.

Current legislation gives guidance to shops that sulphuric acid is listed as a ‘reportable substance’. This means that whilst a licence is not required for purchase, under the guidance ‘suspicious transactions’ must be reported. However many products do not list the concentration of acid which separates ‘reportable’ products to conventional products like bleaches. This has led to confusion and retailers adopting differing approaches.

Changes to tackle these awful attacks should include;

(1) Sentences for carrying corrosive substances without a lawful excuse as currently covered within knife crime sentencing (up to four-years).

(2) Legislative and CPS guidance changes to ensure that attacks with acid are covered as dangerous weapons.

(3) The Poisons Act 1972 to cover all corrosive products – so retailers need a licence to sell and buyers need a licence to purchase.

(4) Purchases will be to over 18 year olds only, requiring proof of age identification; coupled with credit card only transactions – so purchases can be traced if needed.

(5) Manufacturers being required to clearly label corrosive products and the level of sulphuric acid contained.

(6) Increasing intelligence led Police stop-and-search.

(7) Mandatory life sentences on those convicted of grievous bodily harm with intent.

Only clear and bold action can tackle this awful and heinous crime that is affecting the country and London especially.


Creating a welfare system that works

WelfarCountless Governments have tried and failed to roll back the benefits system against those that can and wont work. At the outset, let me be clear; I believe in a welfare system that provides a safety net for those that need it and protects the most vulnerable in our society.

Failure of the Labour years.

welfare3During the early years, Labour sought to reform benefits, but when they encountered resistance to change they backed away.

Not only this, they brought forward an approach that had the perverse effect of punishing work. For example – hardworking taxpayers could lose over £9 of every £10 extra they earned. Under Labour the benefit system became so moneycomplicated that for many there was no point in working more because they would lose more in benefits than they would earn in work.

There efforts also failed especially the young; Labour’s much vaunted and expensive ‘Future Jobs Fund’ saw nearly half of participants back on benefits as soon as the six months of their placement were due for renewal.

They also trapped many in low wages by letting the tax credit bill get out of control. Tax credit spending increased by an astonishing 340 per cent between 1997/98 and 2010, while at the same time average earnings increased by 30 per cent. Even Alastair Darling  admitted that Tax Credits were ‘subsidising lower wages in a way that was never intended’.

Reform by the Conservatives

Welfare5The mission, started by the Rt Hon Iain Duncan Smith MP, was to make work pay and lift many out of welfare dependency altogether. He understood that the value of work goes far beyond the economic benefits – it significantly affects health and wellbeing.

As part of the broader economic strategy, has seen employment rise by 2.8 million since welfare22010. That means more people with the dignity of a job, security of a regular pay packet, and more people able to support their families.

The flagship policy of ‘Universal Credit’ is a crucial reform to our benefits system designed to make sure work always pays. From this month the Government will reduce the Welfare6Universal Credit taper rate from 65 per cent to 63 per cent – effectively a tax cut for those in work on low incomes. This will increase the incentive to work and progress for 3 million households, and means that a couple with two children receiving the housing element of Universal Credit, where one parent earns £30,000 a year, would benefit by around £425 per year.

During the Labour years, the starting rate for tax hardly moved. Raising the tax-free personal allowance has done more to help ordinary working people than almost anything else. These change mean for example that someone with a salary of £15,000 pays just £800 a year in tax compared to £1,705 in 2010. It single handedly took four million people out of income tax altogether. The personal allowance will raise even further to £12,500.

One of the comments that I heard frequently on the doorstep under the Labour years was hard working families seeing families on benefits being better off. This was profoundly wrong. Introducing the cap on the overall amount an out of work household can get in benefits ensured people cannot claim more in benefits than most earn in work. The benefit cap is being reduced further from £26,000 to £23,000 in London, and £20,000 in the rest of the country.

Benefit levels for a time rose faster than average wages. That is why the Government  capped the increase to 1 per cent to match public sector pay. This will save billions and rewards work by ensuring benefits don’t rise faster than wages.

Supporting the vulnerable and pensioners

For those that cannot work, it was right to exempt those with serious and chronic conditions from reassessments. This will remove unnecessary stress and bureaucracy for the most vulnerable in society.

welfare7On pensions the triple lock was introduced. This makes sure the basic State Pension goes up by whichever is highest of inflation, wages or 2.5 per cent. Last year the basic State Pension saw the biggest real terms increase since 2001, meaning someone on a full basic State Pension is around £570 more a year better off than if it had been uprated by average earnings, and received £1,125 more per year overall than in 2010-11.

For those of working age automatic enrolment in pensions supports people to save for their retirement. This requires all employers to automatically enrol eligible workers in a good quality workplace pension scheme. The number of people saving into workplace pensions has increased by 4.4 million since 2012, and research by the IFS has shown that, between 2012 and 2015, 95 per cent of the rise in private sector membership was the result of automatic enrolment, and that these changes disproportionately benefit low earners. In addition, around 2 million people will benefit from a new market-leading savings bond announced by the Chancellor at the Autumn Statement.

Whilst the path to benefit reform will never be an easy one, with care taken to protect the vulnerable and those most in need, the Government is going in the right direction.


First Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayoral debate – a great success

candidates5It was a real pleasure to help host the first Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayoral Hustings.

Over 100 people from Cambridgeshire’s property and construction industry attended the first of the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Mayoral Hustings, hosted by Belgrave Communications, Carter Jonas and Turnstone Estates.

Candidates4The Hustings took place at the Cambridge Rugby Club and included opening remarks from five of the front-running candidates, as well as a discussion and question and answer session before inviting the audience to cast their vote. Participating in the lively debate were Cllr Paul Bullen (UKIP), Cllr Rod Cantrill (Liberal Democrats), Peter Dawe (Independent), Cllr James Palmer Candidates7(Conservative) and Cllr Kevin Price (Labour).

Based on current projections, Cambridgeshire’s population is due to increase from 627,000 in 2012 to 800,000 in 2036. This presents the region with a significant number of challenges but also with a number of opportunities. In a fast-paced discussion, candidates addressed the population swell and detailed how they would hust6hope to relieve spatial planning issues affecting Cambridgeshire and Peterborough as well as concerns around housing, economy and transport in the region.

In a straw poll of the audience taken on the day, when asked which public transport initiatives were the best to follow, the audience did not seem to support Bus initiatives with an overwhelming majority hust8voting in favour of Heavy Rail initiatives. Light Rail received some support.

Pictured right: Organisers – Chris Goldsmith, Colin Brown and myself after a successful event.

On spatial planning initiatives, only 15 per cent of those in the room thought that dispersing some of the growth that would naturally want to be in Cambridge or in close Husting 9proximity to it, to the north and east of the County was an option worth pursuing.

At the end of the event, the audience cast their votes for favourite candidate using the slightly more official method of voting papers and ballot boxes. Conservative candidate, Cllr James Palmer, received 59 per cent of the vote, emerging as the clear favourite with those in the room.

We were delighted to see such a great turnout of the property and construction industry at the event. It proved to be a very interesting and enlightening event with the different visions for the future of Cambridgeshire and Peterborough.



Time for new rail strike laws to curb the unions

strike2The ongoing strikes on the London underground tube and on the Southern Rail routes are inflicting misery on millions of commuters. As one of those millions of commuters I have seen first hand the frustration and inconvenience to normal hard working people –  just simply trying to get to their place of employment.

Fresh strikes are expected on Southern Rail routes next Unionweek, London Underground on February 6th and possibly on Northern Rail and Merseyrail at the end of next month.

What these strikes show is a contempt for people’s daily lives.  Commuters want a reliable service, not an unreasonable expectation.

corbynThey should not expect too much help from the Labour Party, who have received £250,000 from ASLEF and the RMT since the last election and refuse to condemn these strikes. What is more, the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn MP, said he would be prepared to join striking Southern Rail workers on the picket line!

20160324_180757Pictured right: Historic buses being brought into service to help with the strikes.

Last year the new Trade Union Act came into law. This laid down a number of fundamental changes including ensuring industrial action only ever goes ahead when there has been a ballot turnout of at least 50%. In important public including transport an additional threshold of 40% of support to take industrial action from all eligible members must be met strike3for action to be legal. This, sadly, has failed to curb the most hardline unions.

The unions continue to fight the very modernisation which is vital on the network, including introducing driverless trains which will significantly lift capacity by the end of the decade – more trains for passengers.

A new strike law could be passed, SRdeeming the rail service across the UK as an ‘essential service’ and only allowing industrial action from the unions that does not impact commuters journeys to work. This would ensure a balance; the unions still have the right to strike and commuters would have a right to get to work.


New approach to mental health announced for young people

For too long there hasn’t been enough focus on mental healthcare in this country, it has been hidden injustice and surrounded by unacceptable stigma, leaving many to suffer in silence. Changing this goes right to the heart of shared values and making sure we live in a country where everyone is supported.

Today, the Prime Minister announced new plans to transform mental health support in schools, workplaces and communities.

There will be new support for every secondary school. Each school will be offered mental health first aid training to increase awareness around mental health and help to tackle the unacceptable stigma around the issue. To support this initiative, new proposals will outline how mental health services for schools, universities and families can be improved, so that everyone in the community is supported, at every stage of life.

As an anti-bullying campaigner I have seen first hand the long term mental health effects that bullying can have on young people and the charities like Red Balloon Learner Centre Group that have done so much to help. I have been highlighting this issue for some time including my article on Conservative Home. This is a welcome step forward.

These proposals are part of a wide range of measures to improve mental health and make sure no one is left behind. There will be an expert review into how we can improve mental wellbeing in the workplace so employees receive more care. There will be more support in the community so everyone in need can access the best support for their needs, more online services will be provided and the system will be made fairer for people suffering from mental health problems.

This is an opportunity to make sure we are providing attention and treatment for those deserving of compassion and help, striving to improve mental wellbeing and ensure that everyone is supported.

The plans that the Prime Minister announced includes:

New support for schools – to support children and young people and help to tackle mental illness early. Every secondary school in the country will be offered mental health first aid training and build stronger links with local NHS mental health staff. To support this, there will also be a major thematic review of children and adolescent mental health services across the country, which will be led by the Care Quality Commission, to identify priority areas. A new green paper on children and young people’s mental health to set out plans to transform services in schools, universities and for families.

New partnerships with employers – to improve mental health support in the workplace. Lord Dennis Stevenson, the long-time campaigner for greater understanding and treatment of mental illness, and Paul Farmer CBE, CEO of Mind and Chair of the NHS Mental Health Taskforce will lead a review on how best to ensure employees with mental health problems are enabled to thrive in the workplace and perform at their best.

Further alternatives to hospital treatments – to support people in the community and recognise that seeing a GP or going to A&E will not be the right intervention for everyone. We will build on our £15 million investment to provide and promote new models of community-based care such as crisis cafes and community clinics. The initial £15 million investment led to 88 new places of safety being created and we will build on this success

Investing in and expanding digital mental health services – rapidly expanding mental health treatment. We will speed up the delivery of a £67.7 million digital mental health package so that those worried about stress, anxiety or more serious issues can go online, check their symptoms and if needed, access digital therapy immediately rather than waiting weeks for a face-to-face appointment. Further follow up face-to-face sessions will be offered as necessary.

Introducing new ways to right the injustices people with mental health problems face – making the system fairer. Despite known links between debt and mental health, currently hundreds of mental health patients are charged up to £300 by their GP for a form to prove they have mental health issues. To end this unfair practice the Department for Health will undertake a formal review of the mental health debt form, working with Money and Mental Health. We will also support NHS England’s commitment to eliminate inappropriate placements to inpatient beds for children and young people by 2021.

Spending more to help people with mental health conditions. In the last Parliament there was a record of £11.7 billion investment in mental health services. In the Spending Review we committed an additional £600 million in mental health to ensure access to talking therapies, perinatal mental health services and crisis care.

Helping millions more people get psychological treatment and recover. The Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme – backed by £400 million – has treated over 2.6 million people, and over 1.5 million have completed that treatment. Over 1 million people have reached recovery. The total number of people helped in the last Parliament from talking therapies was 3 million, compared to just 226,000 people helped in the Parliament before that—a thirteenfold increase.

Supporting new and expectant mums and their babies to be happy and healthy. We are investing £290 million to ensure at least 30,000 more women each year will have access to mental healthcare. Women will have access to perinatal classes, new community perinatal teams, more beds in mother and baby units and improved mental health support.

Introducing waiting time standards so people get treatment for mental health conditions sooner. We have introduced the first ever access and waiting standards for mental health services and those standards are being met. We have introduced the first-ever waiting time for teenagers with eating disorders, from 2017/2018 they will be seen within a month of referral or within a week for urgent cases.

A housing strategy to help those in need

homesAsk any Member of Parliament or Councillor what their biggest issue of casework is, and invariably it will be housing need.

Just like the free market reforms of the 80’s ensured the dream of home ownership was realised for millions of people, so must we have the same ambition to give people the security and stability of owning their own home to the many.index

Although any strategy must move with the times and the solutions of the past are not always the same as today.

The Government has doubled the housing budget to more than £20 billion over the next five years coupled with the largest house HTBbuilding programme by any government since the 1970s.

Supporting people who work hard and play by the rules, to achieve their dreams of buying their own home is a key part of our long term plan to deliver an economy that works for everyone, not just a privileged few.

How can this be achieved?

The Government’s strategy is:
(1) Delivering 400,000 new affordable home starts by 2020. Including doubling the housing budget and are investing £8 billion to build 400,000 affordable homes, including quality homes for rent.
(2) Extending Right to Buy to housing associations tenants – ending the unfairness that allowed only council tenants to use Right to Buy. Under the reinvigorate Right to Buy councils are already providing one extra home for each additional property sold and housing associations have committed to provide an additional home for each property sold under Right to Buy on a one-for-one basis.
(3) Passing the Housing and Planning Act – making it easier to build homes and improving the private rented sector. Pay-to-stay means council tenants earning over £40,000 in London and £31,000 elsewhere will pay fair rent.
(4) Launching London Help to Buy and Help to Buy: ISAs – helping people save towards their first home. The London Help to Buy scheme allows Londoners to buy a home with just a 5 per cent deposit and a mortgage as low as 55 per cent. First-time buyers will be able to save up to £200 a month for a deposit that the government will top up by 25 per cent, up to a maximum of £3,000.
(5) A £3 billion Home Building Fund to help build more homes. We are offering direct support for those who cannot access financing in the market. £1 billion of short term loan funding will be for small builders and custom builders, delivering 25,000 homes this Parliament and £2 billion of long term funding will be for infrastructure and large sites, unlocking a pipe line of up to 200,000 homes over the longer term.

It is worth remembering that housebuilding under Labour fell to levels not seen since the 1920s. Between June 2008 and June 2009 only 75,000 new homes were started, the lowest level of housebuilding in peacetime since the 1920s.

Only the Conservatives can deliver the homes that are needed.

Cambridge to Oxford ‘Varsity’ Train Line back on track

Calls to reintroduce the Cambridge to Oxford Train Line, known at the ‘Varsity Line’ received a boost this week. In the Chancellors statement he announced that the Government would provide £110m of funding for an east-west rail link between Oxford and Cambridge. Of this £100m would be spent accelerating the building of Western Section, which includes the Bedford – Oxford and Milton Keynes to Aylesbury lines.

Then the remaining £10m would be used to identify a preferred route for the line to extend east of Bedford, via Sandy, to Cambridge.



The Chancellor, Philip Hammond MP said, philip-hammond“This project can be more than just a transport link. It can become a transformational tech-corridor, drawing on the world-class research strengths of our two best-known universities.”

The original ‘Varsity’ line to Sandy was closed in 1967. Sadly reopening old route is not possible as the line was dismantled and used for other purposes including the Ryle radio telescope array and housing for instance.Ryletelescope

Aside from the economics and boosting this high tech corridor, the concept of any resident being able to travel from Cambridge to Oxford in an hour has to be an exciting one. I for one look forward to the day when this vision is realised, and sooner rather than later. This is now a deliverable scheme and every effort must be made for it to become reality as soon as possible.