Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Prudhoe and the Falklands

From the town of Prudhoe in my constituency, Able Seaman Derek Armstrong, a trained deep sea diver, died when the HMS Ardent was sunk on May 22nd 1982, in the Falklands War. Derek was only 22 years old and had attended the local school, Prudhoe Community High. The 'Derek Armstrong Memorial Award' is still presented each year to the best sportsperson.
Today I was able to welcome to the House of Commons students from the same school in Prudhoe: their visit on this particular day was entirely by chance - they were not to know that I had a debate on the Falkland Islands at 9.30. The students were economics students, led by their teacher Chris Shaw.
We met at 9am in Westminster Hall, before they went on their tour of the House, and discussed the Eurozone crisis, Alternative Vote, bankers bonuses, and my working week amongst other topics. I was able to tell them of the Falklands debate and discuss the Derek Armstrong award, and what it meant to the school. Following the House of Commons debate on the Falklands I then had to do the Newcastle Mayoral debate and then met Lord West to debate the Falklands on the BBC Daily Politics Show.
Before we went live I discussed with Lord West his service in the Falklands: he was in command of HMS Ardent, when the ship was sunk, and had known Derek Armstrong well. For me the day brought home the immediacy of the past and present conflicts, with everything coming back to a small town in Northumberland.
A very poignant day

Update: the BBC interview can be found here:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-16812442

Sunday, 29 January 2012

The Independent on Sunday focuses on Hadrians Wall and the Falklands

My job is to sell the wonder that is Northumberland: so I was delighted to read this mornings Independent on Sunday, which at page 26 features a 2 page spread on "My favourite place" - describing how we all trying to boost Britians fifth largest industry = Tourism.
I was selected as one of the ambassadors, and have featured Hadrians Wall.
The full piece is found online here, but the print version is bigger, with more pics HERE

The Independent on Sunday also trails Tuesday's debate on the Falklands and writes a background piece to the debate which quotes me as follows:
"Guy Opperman, Tory MP for Hexham, said the Falklands and other British territories should have a legal guarantee of self-determination rather than rely on the "whim of Whitehall". As tensions with Argentina over the Falklands escalate ahead of the 30th anniversary of the 1982 war, he said Parliament should pass a law guaranteeing the right of Britain's 14 overseas territories to choose their own fate.

In a debate on Tuesday, he will call on the Government to try to lift the Argentinian-inspired trade blockade of the Falklands. He added: "The Falkland islanders are rightly worried about this anniversary and the actions that Argentina is now taking to prevent access and trade, which we fear may escalate."

Friday, 27 January 2012

House of Commons Debate on the Falkland Islands - self determination is key



For several weeks since before Christmas I have applied to the Speaker, John Bercow, for a debate on the issue of the Falkland Islands. Finally at 9.30 on Tuesday morning he has found time for a 1 and a half hour debate on this issue - given the packed Westminster programme this delay is not unusual and the Speaker has recognised the importance of such a debate.
Regular readers will know that I met with Falkland Island representatives last year and have blogged on the issue again before Christmas.
Matters have clearly escalated diplomatically between the two countries and only yesterday the Argentinian President made a statement on the issue. The BBC have also been reporting on the dispute as well, and parliamentary colleagues spoke briefly on the issue in yesterdays Debate on defence.
I am still writing the speech but certain points are clear:
- The Falkland Island people will always have Great Britians support. Their destiny is entirely in their hands and as long as they wish to stay British, then British they will stay.
- I am calling for a self determination law - confirming that all overseas territories, of which there are 14, have an unambiguous right to remain British, and be defended from oppression, in the absence of a majority voting for secession.
- This point needs to be made firmly by all sides in the House of Commons [in a debate such as this the Opposition get to reply, and the Governemnt Minister responding will be Jeremy Browne, who is a Liberal. Thus there is great merit in the debate so that all sides of the House can reassure the Falkland Islanders of parliaments settled intention to stand by them.
- There should be no negotiation on sovereignty.
- I am pleased to see that the Argentinian President is confining her intentions to diplomatic pressure. So be it.
- But the world also needs to hear of the hardships that are being endured by the Falkland Islanders who are effectively being blockaded in their own lands. This is not acceptable, and does not smack of diplomacy to me.

I will post more closer to next Tuesday, but the debate will be on the parliament channel at 9.30 Tuesday morning. I know a lot of colleagues will be attending and supporting.

Performance Tables for all schools up and down the country have been published - check your school out

Transparency and sunlight are the best of things: the Department for Education has releases its country wide ‘performance tables’ for secondary schools. Good to see Northumberlands schools doing so well.
http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance/
You can sift through them and I'd recommend you spend at least a couple of minutes doing just that. They reveal finer detail about schools and results than has been made public before, such as about how ‘disadvantaged children’ (those on free school meals or in local authority care for at least six months) perform in individual schools. We've seen facts similar to today's ‘only 33.9 per cent of disadvantaged pupils achieved five A*-C grade GCSEs including English and maths, compared to the national average of 58.2 per cent in maintained schools’, before now. It's more the capacity to delve down, quickly and easily, to a school-by-school level that's new.

These new school tables should make parents more informed. It's less about targets and rankings than simple truth. And the decent schools will get the full credit they deserve. Speaking of which, it turns out that — after the ARK group's impressive results yesterday — GCSE results at academies in general improved at almost twice the national average.

What's particularly encouraging is that there's more to come. Apparently, the Department for Education should be releasing even more detailed subject-by-subject data next month, in the build-up to the full National Pupil Database in the middle of the year. The government is excited about what this great mine of information will mean not just for education but also for the cause of transparency itself — and understandably so. The hope is that people outside of government will get their hands all over it and start producing snazzy, digital school guides that will tell parents everything they need to know. And they might tell educators and politicians the occasional thing too. If, for instance, one school is doing particularly well at teaching French, then there it is — visit it, learn its secret, spread it. Everyone stands to gain from this sort of transparency.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

North East Olympic and Tourism Launch in Gateshead - "The magic does not just stay in London but spreads throughout the Country!"

- Half of the worlds population will watch the Olympics
- 83% of all schools are involved in the Get Set for the Games programme, with 508 school games across the country
- 40,000 journalists will be covering the games
- 1000 free Cultural events all over the UK
- The Torch relay will cover 8000 miles around the country
- 4.5 million extra tourists
- 9 Olympic Football matches at St James Park
- One East Tynedale Games
- 4 days for the torch in the North East - all across the Hexham constituency on 16th June
- One amazing band from the North East in Folkestra playing
On March 8th 2012 the massive government advertising programme worth millions of pounds will kickstart the Olympics tourism in this country. Jeremy Hunt, Olympics Minister came to Gateshead today to launch the Olympics in the North East, along with Visit England chief, James Berrisford, Geoff Hodgson, NE Regional Board, the Cultural Olympiad Director, Ruth Mackenzie, and all the great team from the Sage and the Newcastle Gateshead Initiative.
" How can we make the most of the 2012 opportunity? The answer is simple: everyone from abroad will be told -"YOURE INVITED!"
And we must play our part - both by welcoming our guests, and by staycationing here -in Great Britain, and in the North East in particular.
"This will be 6 weeks of fun, but also 6 years of opportunity for our domestic Tourism Businesses" - Jeremy Hunt, MP, Olympics Minister today.

More to follow on the massive TV advertising campaign that is coming on March 8th, and the way in which everyone is going to be offered 20.12% discounts on all manner of local holidays and events.
I cannot wait - a spectacular day. It will be a spectacular year.

American Centre Right Politics - would you vote for any Republicans right now or support Obama

Any student of the world, politics, and the way ahead, will look at the American election and shake their head in wonder? I set out below a recent piece from the Spectator assessing the race for the Republican nomination. I am a One Nation centre right politician, but I would unequivocably reject the Republican case as put forward by Newt Gingrich, and his tea party fans, and vote every single day for Obama in the upcoming 2012 poll.
From the Spectator:
"That tubby, unlovable rogue Newt Gingrich is on a big roll. His poll ratings are surging ahead of the Florida primary next week. This despite the fact that almost everyone, even the good fellows at National Review, can see what a disastrous candidate he is. Gingrich has — this hardly needs saying — a terrible record in office, a long list of involvements in dodgy deals, an embarrassing private life, and a dubious legacy as a man of ‘conservative principles’.
No wonder the Democrats are upping their attacks on Newt’s rival Mitt Romney. They know that Newt the nominee would all but guarantee four more years of President Obama. (Not that Mitt represents much more of a threat, mind.) Republican voters, for their part, just seem to get bored and turn against whichever candidate happens to be winning.
Have American conservatives realised, like everyone else, that neither Romney or Gingrich has a coherent conservative philosophy or any real chance of reaching the White House? It feels at the moment as if they’ve decided they might as well make this election year a bit more fun — by sending in Gingrich rather than Romney — because he is at least the more entertaining cretin.
"

Obama is a force for good, and testament that anyone can make it with application and effort. Expectations were unrealistic of his messianic abilities - particularly given the world economy, but I hope America chooses him in November.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Green Deal Meeting with Greg Barker

Just tried to speak in the India trade debate, and now off to PMQs, but time to thank the Green Alliance for sending me in todays post the Green Alliance Policy Insight Report on the Green Deal, following our successful summit in Hexham last year. Off to meet Greg Barker next week and put our concerns to government. For further details on this see todays Ecologist Magazine http://www.theecologist.org/blogs_and_comments/commentators/other_comments/1218574/getting_a_good_deal_from_the_green_deal.html

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

The Sunday Politics


I was on the Sunday Politics last week discussing amongst other things unemployment and Police Commissioners. CLICK HERE to watch the show, the North East Version starts about 30minutes in.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Should we have a benefits cap? Yes we should - why should a hard working family subsidise someone to the tune of £35,000 a year?

The benefits cap we have proposed is £35,000 benefits per year = £26,000, after tax, of a normal person. This is surely sufficient to live on?
On this issue some of the Bishops, Ed Miliband and a few liberals are manifestly wrong. Fortunately 76% of the population agree with the cap and a large amount would like it lower:
This is partly a question of fairness. Why should a family, without any of its members lifting a finger, be entitled to the same standard of living as the hard-working family who live next door?
http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/mary-ann-sieghart/mary-ann-sieghart-when-the-people-can-see-what-fairness-is-why-cant-miliband-6293265.html
Good to see Gordon Brown's big mate, Sir "Fred the Shred" Goodwin, the man whose ego and idiotic banking brought RBS to its knees, is likely to lose his knighthood - his case has been referred to the Forfeiture Committee, in Whitehall. They will consider whether to ask the Queen to revoke Sir Fred’s knighthood, which was bestowed on him in 2004 for ‘services to banking’. He must be in trouble as even Ed Miliband, who was in Downing Street when this all happended, as a Special Advisor, finally admits it was wrong to give him the honour.
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2089131/Sir-Fred-Goodwin-Ed-Miliband-admits-Labour-wrong-honour-disgraced-RBS-chief.html

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Torchgate..there is light at the end of the tunnel

In the dark at Hexham Station. Torchgate is the disappointing failure of Northern Rail to plan for the extension of the 7.41 train from Hexham to Newcastle, which is so popular with passengers that many have to stand for the journey. Thus, when they did put another carriages on the end of the train the drivers objected to walking in the dark to turn the train around - this disaster being compounded by the lack of a torch for a while.
However, following last weeks debate in the House of Commons, when I raised the matter with the Minister for Transport, see HEREand then shone some light on the matter myself locally, as set out in the Journal HEREI am pleased to see that common sense may now prevail.
Unsurprisingly the Union, ASLEF, and the company Northern Rail, have now reached an agreement they should have reached ages ago and are assuring us, and the public, that the extra carriage will run next week, starting tomorrow. So:

I am delighted that there is light at the end of the tunnel
Out of darkness there is now hope and light, and
We can see clearly now

Enough of the bad metaphors ... here's hoping the extra carriage is there tomorrow!!

Thursday, 19 January 2012

Stannington event with Cabinet Minister tomorrow and the Best Westminster story of 2012 thus far...

Welcoming Owen Paterson, the Eurosceptic Northern Ireland Minister to Stannington tomorrow, and feel I have to share the story that is going around Westminster yesterday - I stress that rumours make it clear it is not necessarily true, but it did make me smile:
The Summit Journey:Coming back from another recent EC summit in Rome, various European leaders were forced to take the train due to a strike by Swiss ATC controllers; sitting together in the same compartment, travelling through the Swiss Alps, were Sarkozy, Cameron, Merkel and the young and very attractive female Irish foreign minister.
The train goes into a dark tunnel and a few seconds later there is the sound of a kiss followed by a loud slap.
When the train emerges from the tunnel, Sarkozy has a bright red, hand print on his cheek. No one speaks, everyone is extremely shocked and embarrassed.
Angela Merkel thinks: Sarkozy, not able to help himself, must have kissed the Irish girl in the dark, and she slapped his cheek.
The Irish girl thinks: Sarkozy, not able to help himself, must have tried to kiss me in the dark, but missed and kissed Merkel and she slapped his cheek.
Sarkozy thinks: Why me ? That perfidious Cameron must have groped the Irish girl in the dark knowing that I’d get the blame for it and she slapped me…the English bastard.
Cameron thinks: I can’t wait for another tunnel, just so I can kiss the back of my hand again and smack that little French sod another time.

Home in Hexham and the Daylight Savings Bill

Home in Hexham for a long work weekend - multiple surgeries in Hexham tomorrow and a meet with the Hexham River Hydro team, and then welcoming the Cabinet Minister, Owen Paterson, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to a do in Stannington Friday night, where he is speaking. Saturday am all day in Ponteland, with meetings about the Ponteland Green belt and other surgeries, and then Sunday I will be appearing on the new look Politics Show, talking about Police Commissioners and what we are doing to help victims of asbestosis.

Sadly this means I have to miss Fridays Private Members Bill Debates: few such bills get passed but I think there is a good chance that the second reading of my good friend Rebecca Harris' Daylight Savings Bill will get passed. If I were in the House I would have supported it. The economic arguments seem overwhelming and although the further north you go into Scotland there are arguments against the idea by Scottish MPs I have been struck that my postbag from constituents is clearly in favour of this proposed Bill.
For a more detailed look at the argument in favour look here:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/8856334/Daylight-Savings-Bill-the-argument-for.html

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

BoJo has MoJo - and an explanation of the good things that come from Police Commissioners and Mayors

Just back from a barnstorming meeting with the Mayor of London, who as always turned up 5 mins late and with his shirt hanging out. Hairstyle / suit was borrowed from the "dragged thru a hedge backwards" school of tailoring. I am confident he will win the Mayoral election in May: he described his style of leadership as "sensible, moderate, One Nation, cost cutting Conservatism."

Howwever, the serious points were that he gave us 40 minutes on the massive difference a Mayor and a Police Commissioner can make:

The stats on his Mayoralty make very interesting reading:
- council tax down by 12%
- transport services reinvigorated with Boris Bikes, the safest tube in Europe, massively improved tube efficiency, designated bike lanes, and selling of the hated Bendy Buses to Scandanavian Airports and the poor people of Malta
- housing massively improved on a number of levels, particularly the number of affordable homes
- 50,000 trees planted and a series of improvements to Londons parks
- Great opportunities for the young with the National Citizens Service
- Crossrail and Tube upgrades
and 204 countries sending representatives to the Olympic Games.
He spoke well on the idea of "Putting the Village back in to London"

On Crime, and the need for Police Commissioners, his role as the Police Commissioner has shown crime reduction on a significant scale:
- knife crime deaths cut by a half
- murder rate down 25%
- bus crime down 13%
- and a massively safer tube
He was adamant that expanding Heathrow would never happen, but pretty confident that Boris Island - paid for by private investment - would. The choice is clear - Boris or Ken Livingstone, who one person made the point visited Cuba more times in his term of office than he went to Hammersmith and Fulham...
I will definitely be supporting Boris in the coming months

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Green Deal Report

Regular readers will remember that I recently held a Green Deal Summit in Hexham to discuss plans for the Government's Green Deal which has the potential to transform thousands of households in Tynedale.

Following on from the Green Deal workshop the Green Alliance have complied a report - Getting a good deal from the Green Deal - which contains the views from local communities, which they have published and submitted to the government’s consultation.

The report presents the conclusions from the three workshops they held in late 2011 it is available on their website here. Thank you to everyone who came for participating in the workshop we ran in Hexham.
The Green Alliance and the 3 MPs who were involved in the Green Deal Workshops in Hexham, Bristol NW [charlotte Leslie] and Redcar [Ian Swales] are all meeting the Green Deal Minister, Greg Barker, at the end of January to try and explain our findings and see to what extent we can assist the development of what is fundamentally a really good idea.

Monday, 16 January 2012

DECC Select Committee evidence of Mike Murray and Lauren Langton

Mike and Lauren in my shared office in Westminster. They came to parliament and told the DECC Select Committee what was really happening to customers needing LPG and heating oil.
The full transcript of their, and others witnesses, evidence that morning is set out in this link:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201012/cmselect/cmenergy/uc1744-i/uc174401.htm
Tomorrow I have a meeting with the Office of Fair Trading and will be pushing them, and the Business department, to conduct a proper investigation into competition, pricing and availability of heating oil and LPG.

The last great undiscovered wilderness trek in England and the delights of Allen Valley Fishing - more reasons to go to Allendale

The Allen Valley south of Hexham is a special place, full of fascinating people, and heavenly countryside. We are always trying to persuade people to come to Northumberland and see why it is Gods Own County and I am delighted to share 2 further good reasons:
- Hiking the Tea Trail: Isaacs Tea Trail needs to be tried and I am determined to walk at least some of it this coming summer. It is a magical 36 mile circular walk across the green valleys and wild moors, with stunning views across Northumberland and Cumbria. It starts in the magical hamlet of Ninebanks, then takes in Allendale, Sinderhope and Nenthead before heading west to the town of Alston, on your way back to Ninebanks. If you do walk it you will experience true rural beauty, with tranquility where the only sound is bird song, and you are walking through the living history of mining, methodists, tea, and so much more.
The Independent on Sunday describes how the "Tea Trail remains one of the last great undiscovered wilderness treks in England". And there are great pubs, tea shops and B+Bs en route
Full details on their website: http://www.northumberlandlife.org/teatrail/

- The Allen Valley Anglers and Conservation Group, led by the passionate Paul Frear, are doing great work in preserving and promoting the River Allen, whilst also allowing locals and tourists a chance to catch a fish: I like their catchphrase: "join today, catch tomorrow!" Full details on their website http://www.allenvalleyanglers.co.uk/
They are having their AGM on the 2nd Feb and I would encourage all interested locals and tourism professionals to go along. Parliamentary business means I cannot be there but Paul and Graeme have agreed to come fishing with me, when the season gets under way, and turn this competent amateur into something vaguely resembling a decent fisherman.
They are working with local pubs, and B+Bs and have "secured arrangements with 5 local businesses to sell fishing permits to visiting anglers," and tell me that they "are all geared up to start selling these with the start of the new season". They tell me that there are bigger fish than what Lucy has caught!
If you have not been to South Northumberland and the amazing Allen Valley I urge you to go.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Back to Hospital - for good reasons this time!!

Up early tomorrow morning to go to the National Neurological Hospital in Queens Square, London. Regular readers will know that doctors there saved my life in April / May 2011 by removing a non malignant tumour.
Last summer I raised money for the hospitals charity campaign by walking Hadrians Wall. I then increased that sum by telling the story of the illness, the amazing NHS care that I received, and the recovery you can make from a tumour.
The full story is on this link, and my thanks to the Mail on Sunday Health Team who made a large donation to the charity in return for the story:
http://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2035955/MP-Guy-Opperman-recalls-owes-NHS-life-diagnosed-brain-tumour.html
I will be handing over a large cheque to the hospital when I see the Chief Exec first thing. Looking forward to popping in to my ward and saying hello to the nurses. Like all nurses they love chocolate - fear not ladies, your regular rations are on their way.

Pleased to see that Ed Balls now agrees that limiting public spending is the right thing

Great Britain has for many years been spending £4 for every £3 we make. This sadly could not continue. Noone says the process is easy, and the pain is visible all over the country, and I see it regularly in my constituency surgeries.
But finally Ed Balls has admitted that he was wrong to oppose every limitation of the public spending cuts that the Coalition Government has had to make.
Thius far in this parliament Labour have opposed every single limit to public spending. This populist opportunism and grandstanding apparently will now stop - see his speech to the Fabian Society today as reported by the BBC:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-16558820

I will believe the change to the 2 Ed's strategy when I see it but they will have to face down their union paymasters now.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

The flawed case for Scottish Independence

Alex Salmond, the SNP Leader is clearly a very wily fox, but any analysis of the case for Scottish Independence shows that the argument in favour is fraught with danger. I should say that I believe that our two countries are stronger together on a multitude of levels but a sensible debate requires an analysis of the consequences of independence:
- Cash: Scotland would have just 14% of North Sea oil revenues, yet no Barnett formula subsidy by Non Scottish taxpayers. Salmond being Salmond says he does not want to take back The Royal Bank of Scotland - that is apparently Englands problem: even though - in 2007, the SNP leader wrote to RBS boss Sir Fred Goodwin backing his takeover of ABN Amro — the deal which brought the bank down.
- What of Great Britain's National Debt? This was incurred by all the country. Is Scotland going to avoid paying its per capita share of the £140 Billion that we all owe?
- Europe: if Mr Salmond says he wants to join the Euro, then good luck to him. He would certainly have to join the EU.
- Defence: what of all the British forces, regiments and naval and air bases in Scotland. Every week we hear from Scottish MPs [mainly the nationalists] arguing that the defence programme in Scotland is vital to jobs and their local and national interests. Would they support all the costs as well.
- Health and Welfare: it is laughable to say that Scotland could afford the benefits, health and pensions system it now enjoys. It simply does not have the cash.

Finally you have to ask what the Queen thinks of all this? She is the leader of the United Kingdom. I am certain she has no desire to see her kingdom broken up.
Sadly Mr Salmond is like a spoilt child, who wants a whole collection of expensive cake, to be paid for by his parents, with no thought to his own obesity or long term health.

This debate is a really serious one. Mr Salmond is genuinely not helping his country and the welfare of his nation. His flawed idealogical ramblings, made for political gain, must be matched by the facts on every occasion. It would be a disaster for all of us if Scotland declared independence ... but most of all it would be a disaster for the Scottish people.
The Daily Mail's piece yesterday shows that you must always be careful what you wish for: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2086465/What-Scotland-did-alone.html

Fighting the fight against Fuel Poverty

Jobs matter, housing matters, so many things matter...
But fuel poverty is an issue that cuts across politics, and it matters to those who are really struggling. It affects those who have to pay at least 10% of their income simply on heating. In the North East we have 24% fuel poverty and, in Hexham, it is one of our biggest campaigns. Following on from the appearance of Mike and Lauren, representing the North Tyne and Allendale Oil clubs, at the all party DECC select committee, we had a very interesting debate in the House of Commons on Wednesday and it is worth analysing the debate. I could not persuade the Speaker to call me to speak but was able to get in three key questions:
1. To the Labour Energy spokesman, Caroline Flint:
Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
Today the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change heard some of my constituents give evidence on the issue of off-grid energy. May I ask a simple question? Is the Opposition’s policy to regulate it—yes or no?

Caroline Flint (Don Valley, Labour)
We have had a number of debates on the subject. One of the problems with off-grid energy is that some of the schemes that the Government are coming up with do not help the people who are affected by it. I shall say more about that later in the context of the green deal. There are real questions about who will be excluded, but we are talking today about energy prices, and about what we can do to make the market more competitive and responsible.

I look forward greatly to learning what the Select Committee has discussed in relation to off-grid energy, and will think about some of its recommendations. We will make up our own minds about what we should do, but I acknowledge that there is a problem. During the three months for which I have had my present job, it has arisen many times in debates. I also acknowledge that there are insulation problems for many people in rural communities whose homes have solid walls. I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman chapter and verse today, but he can be reassured that the issue is on my radar.

2. Then to the Liberal Secretary of State Chris Huhne, to see what he would do:
Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I merely reiterate the point that with 24% of the north-east in fuel poverty, the situation in relation to heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas for off-grid customers is clearly unsatisfactory. Does the Secretary of State accept that and what specifically does he intend to do about it?
Christopher Huhne (Secretary of State, Energy and Climate Change; Eastleigh, Liberal Democrat)
My hon. Friend makes a good and important point. People who are off-grid have traditionally had to deal with substantially higher costs than those who are on grid, and that continues to be the case. The case for regulating off-grid is weak, because as long as the market is competitive, it ought to deliver a reasonable result for consumers. I was surprised, as were other members of the ministerial team, that when we asked the Office of Fair Trading to look at the market, it was
given a clean bill of health on competition grounds. We need to continue to watch this situation and we are very much on the case. With the renewable heat incentive and the green deal, it will be important that people who are off-grid think about other options rather than being reliant on heating oil, such as ground source heat pumps and biomass, which can already be cheaper than on-grid options.

Regular readers know that we think that the OFT report was a simplistic white wash - a point I put slightly more gently to my neighbour over the border in Durham:

3. Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I am the hon. Lady’s constituency neighbour and we share a great deal of common ground on the issue of off-grid problems. So far as my constituents are concerned, there is no genuine competition and fairness of pricing in respect of off-grid, so from their point of view the report by the OFT, which was only a market study, is manifestly insufficient and not right. Do her constituents convey the same concerns?

Pat Glass (North West Durham, Labour)
Yes, exactly the same issues are raised in my constituency surgeries. The OFT accepted that in some parts of the country there are fewer than three suppliers, but in practice even though there may be three advertised suppliers, sometimes only one company is prepared to deliver. That is certainly the case in parts of my constituency, and I am sure that is also the case elsewhere. That may not be a monopoly in the view of the OFT, but for my constituents it is definitely a monopoly. Some of my constituents were faced with increases of almost 100% in heating oil prices in the run-up to Christmas last year, and only one company was prepared to deliver. I call that a monopoly. I urge the Government, and my party’s Front-Bench team, to look again at the regulation of this sector.

We will continue to press the case that there is no real competition and fairness in the provision of heating oil and LPG, and highlight those local companies who are providing a fair rate for their fuel. The DECC committee hearing is available online early next week and I will post it when I have it.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Greggs Boost

Anyone who has visited my constituency office will know that we have a bit of an affinity with Greggs, as we are located on the 2nd floor of a Greggs cafe! The Newcastle company has over 1500 shops, and has recently announced that that total sales grew by 5.8% and like-for-like sales by 1.4%. During the year it opened a record 98 new shops and also completed 170 shop refurbishments. That expansion has created great news of around 800 new jobs and took its staff numbers above 20,000 for the first time.


Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Energy Prices and Fuel Poverty in the House

Off to try and get into the Energy Debate on fuel poverty this afternoon.

Great morning in the House. Lauren and Mike were amazing before the Department of Energy and Climate Change all party Select Committee, giving evidence on heating oil, the lack of competition, oil buying clubs, the savings they make,the problems on pricing and so much more. I will post the full details of their evidence online, and on the blog, but they were praised by Labour's Albert Owen for their evidence, and two comments of the Committee Chairman stood out: "a lot of the country will be interested in what you are doing" and, as they finished - "You have made a big difference to our conclusions"
Afterwards was able to take them in to listen to PMQs in the main chamber

Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Hexham comes to Westminster - constituents give evidence to DECC Select Committee

Very exciting day tomorrow: 2 of my constituents have been invited to give evidence to the Department of Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Mike Murray, of the Tarset Oil Club, and Lauren Langton, are appearing live tomorrow at around 10.30am - you can watch on the parliament channel or the democracy website. Others are giving evidence in writing. This is all part of our desire to ensure that there is a significant reduction in fuel poverty, and a fair market for heating oil and LPG. I wish them luck and will be cheering from the sidelines.

The Committee has taken up my request, set out in writing and in the detailed debate of the 19th October 2011, on energy prices, to investigate heating oil and LPG pricing and regulation: full details here http://www.theyworkforyou.com/debates/?id=2011-10-19b.929.1&s=speaker%3A24962#g957.0
but the key part of the debate is set out below:
Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
There cannot be regulation without submissions being made and investigations taking place. It is incumbent upon us not just to get upset about how our constituents are being affected by heating oil and prices but to make representations to organisations such as the OFT. We must also invite the Energy and Climate Change Committee to investigate off-grid energy, which I very much hope it will do.Albert Owen (Ynys Môn, Labour)
I am pleased to help the hon. Gentleman by saying that we are going to have a further inquiry into the retail market, in which we will examine off-grid energy.Guy Opperman (Hexham, Conservative)
I am most grateful, and I hope that as part of that inquiry the Committee will examine the weighty report that the OFT has provided, as well as specific submissions from individuals and organisations that, like the previous three speakers, can give specific examples of price fixing or the appearance of price fixing. That is in the context of DCC, the company that I am particularly concerned about and have to deal with, recording operating profits of approximately 19.9% on an ongoing basis. I find that figure hard to square with the one given by the managing director, who when questioned in The Sunday Times said that the operating profit was only 2%—but I have taken my figure from the published accounts.

In Hexham five independents operate—WCF, Par Petroleum, Wallace Oils, GB Fuels Ltd and Rix Petroleum. I urge individual Members to draw to their constituents’ attention by every possible means, as I do for each and every constituent who is faced by heating oil problems, which independents operate in the constituency, so that they are in a better position to get a fair price.

A tale of two Railways - HS2 and Torchgate on the Hexham Line...

On the day when the House debated HS2 it was noticeable that all political parties supported and approved the idea and the plan for a high-speed rail route linking London to the West Midlands and subsequently the north east of England. Ultimately the route will go to Scotland. It will add up to 26,000 more seats for rail passengers, and slash journey times by as much as half.
HS2 will also help create jobs, growth and prosperity for the North East. It has the support of business and will also free up extra capacity on the existing network.

A separate railway debate is "Torchgate": readers of the Hexham Courant will know that the notoriously crowded 7.42am train from Hexham to Newcastle has had one of its key Units withdrawn after just three days in service.
The unit was removed because drivers had to walk from one end of the train to the other in the dark – and rail union health and safety officials said this practice was unsafe.
I offered to break the deadlock, as the paper reports:
Hexham’s MP Guy Opperman said: “Clearly this extra carriage is vital for the comfort of passengers. While health and safety measures have to be observed, I find it incredible that drivers cannot use a torch to walk a distance of 100 yards.
If they have not got a torch, I will personally buy them one each! The public will be amazed that a more practical solution cannot be found.”

http://www.hexhamcourant.co.uk/news/news-at-a-glance/no-light-relief-on-packed-train-1.911385?referrerPath=home/1.815878

My Railway Guru and Tyne Valley Rail Users Group Member, Robert Forsythe, said: “This is shambolic and as a result, day after day, people are being left stranded.
“Union health and safety coupled to managerial lack of forethought ensures the Tyne Valley passengers are treated like cattle.”

Sadly, the saga is ongoing, but I am pleased that the parties are at least working on it.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Parliament returns, health questions and the catch of the year

Westminster activity is hotting up as the House sits again tomorrow [albeit the team and I have been hard at it and at our desks both after xmas and over the new year period].
Meeting the Green Aliance tomorrow concerning our Green Deal workshops before our meeting and submissions to Greg Barker on the Green Deal later this month
Also having further meetings tomorrow regarding the Arch Cru crisis tomorrow which we are prepping. Will report back on both later this week.

Have 2 questions as well in the House to Health Ministers at 2.30
i). What steps has the SOS taken to implement flexi scope bowel cancer screening
and the follow up =
ii). The government rightly chose the North East for 2 of the successful pathfinder tests in South of Tyne and Tees. Can the Minister give me a specific date for when local screening centres will be invited both to bid to become pilot sites, and actually have patients as part of the programme?

On a lighter note I can only recommend that any cricket lover go to this link and admire the catch of this year, and any year:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Wq5MHIRWqQ

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Improving nursing in the NHS

Not sure if any of you heard the Prime Minister on RADIO 4 on Friday discussing his plans to improve nursing in the NHS but it was very interesting. The PM was up North to talk about the Government’s drive to ensure that every patient is cared for with compassion and dignity in a clean environment.

The Prime Minister set out some new guiding principles for NHS nursing:

  • Patients not paperwork: we will get rid of a swathe of bureaucracy that stops nurses from doing what they do best.
  • Regular nursing rounds: to systematically and routinely check that patients are comfortable, are properly fed and hydrated, and are treated with dignity and respect, with the Royal College of Nurses (RCN) helping to make it happen.
  • Leadership on the wards: people want to see a figure of authority on the ward . To help do so, a Nursing Quality Forum of front line nurses and nursing leaders will be set up, charged with taking a national leadership role in promoting excellent care and ensuring good practice is adopted across the NHS.
  • New patient-led inspections of hospital wards: local people will go in as part of teams assessing cleanliness, dignity and nutrition and their findings will be published.
  • New ‘friends and family test’: this will ask whether patients, carers and staff would recommend their hospital to their families and friends in their hour of need. We will publish the results and hospital leaders who fail this test will be held to account.

Mr Cameron said: “We’ve talked a lot in the last 18 months about getting the right structures in place to secure the long term future of the NHS. But we can’t just sit around waiting until the structural changes take effect. There’s something really fundamental that needs to be put right fast. We need an NHS which ensures that every patient is cared for with compassion and dignity in a clean environment.

“We know the vast majority of patients are very happy with the care provided by the NHS. I’ve seen the NHS at its very best – the incredible people for whom nursing is a true vocation, who go beyond the call of duty and combine great medical knowledge with great care. But I also know we’ve got a real problem in some of our hospitals with patients not getting the food and drink they need or being treated with the respect they deserve. The Care Quality Commission found one in five hospitals wanting. I am absolutely appalled by this. And we are going to put this right.

"If we want dignity and respect, we need to focus on nurses and the care they deliver. Somewhere in the last decade the health system has conspired to undermine one of this country’s greatest professions. It’s not one problem in particular. It’s the stifling bureaucracy. The lack of consequence for failing to treat people with dignity. Even, at times – as we saw with Mid-Staffordshire – the pursuit of cost-cutting or management targets without sufficient regard for quality of care."

The PM is totally right on this - Nursing needs to be about patients not paperwork. It is right the Governemnt moves to get rid of a whole load of bureaucracy that stops nurses from doing what they do best. And in return it is right patients should expect nurses to undertake regular nursing rounds – systematically and routinely checking that each of their patients is comfortable, properly fed and hydrated, and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.

The Royal College of Nursing is supporting the Government on this and it's great to see it happen.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Justice for Stephen Lawrence drowned out by Dianne Abbott

This week should have been a celebration of the fact that a young black man, called Stephen Lawrence, and his amazing parents, were finally getting justice. I know some of the lawyers who have fought for over 10 years for justice for the Lawrence family. The decision further reinforces the wonderful idea that the true force of the law will get bad people in the end.

Sadly, this groundbreaking struggle for justice, democracy, persistence and equality has been completely drowned out by the idiocy that is Dianne Abbott, MP, and her ill advised comments on white people and the ability of black people to get a taxi in London.

Put to one side the fact that both her comments this week are racist, in the technical sense of the word, and the likelihood that if a white person had said these things I doubt such a person would still have their job as a shadow spokesman for the opposition.

My biggest concerns arising out of the disaster that has been Dianne Abbott's week are twofold:
i). The drowning of the key message that Great Britain is a genuinely multicultural society. I speak as the ancestor of immigrants. The Lawrence verdict has just demonstrated that killing someone on a lonely suburban London street merely because of the colour of his skin is unacceptable, and that our society agrees with this. Note how BNP support is dwindling not rising in these times.

ii). However, the second message is that we lack good black role models in public life - in a way that America is far ahead of us:
Where is our General Colin Powell?
Miss Abbott is hardly Condeleeza Rice is she?
I hope that this spurs on black children and teenagers to get involved in public service. We need them to show the way.
The papers have mixed views on the affair but probably the best piece is this:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/labour/8998384/Diane-Abbotts-real-offence-is-to-deny-children-the-best-start-in-life.html

Councils must lead the way

Its often easy too bash local councils but I am of the belief that strong dynamic leadership at Council level can transform both local communties and local economies. The problems we have had getting the Lib Dem leaders of Northumberland County Council to push ahead on rural broadband provision are well documented and this bit of news recently caught my eye; A deal has been struck between O2 and two neighbouring councils - Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea - to provide free Wi-Fi across thier council areas.

It means that Europe’s largest free Wi-Fi zone will be established in time for the Olympics. Wi-Fi access points will be installed in street furniture, initially to a small number of areas, but eventually will entirely cover both boroughs. No cost is being incurred by the Council Taxpayer or central Government. In fact it will be a source of revenue for the Town Halls and will no doubt be a big help to economic regeneration.

Westminster City Council cabinet member for strategic finance Cllr Philippa Roe said:

“Westminster welcomes over a million tourists a day, is home to 250,000 residents, employs over half a million people and sees 4,000 business starts-ups each year. Next summer’s Olympic Games mean that London will be putting on the biggest show on earth and as Westminster has a starring role, visitors to London will easily be able to share their pictures and updates of the Olympic events across social networking sites.”

Now of course there are a million and one differences between affluent parts of London and our patch here in rural Northumberland but I do think it demonstrates the kind of innovative projects out there when you have a Council really pushing hard for them. The right leaders at County Hall can make a real difference.

Finally on the topic of rural broadband I am working with Vodafone and some residents in one of our villages to see if we can help deliver broadband to them using the network. Exciting stuff: I will keep you posted in the future.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Veto Ale and a Knighthood for Sir Bob Russell MP

Quiet morning in Westminster today. This blog likes to keep up with key national developments and I was pleased to see that Batemans, a "proud, independent British brewery" has decide to introduce a new 'Veto Ale' in celebration of David Cameron's "no" to Nicolas Sarkozy and other EU leaders. The Veto ale is exclusive to Wetherspoons and their chairman Tim Martin is delighted:
"Veto Ale is a traditional English bitter and a perfect example of a great beer style that you can drink and feel proud to be British. I believe that David Cameron has taken the right decision on the euro and that customers in our pubs will salute this with a pint of this excellent beer."
Veto Ale is, we learn, "brewed using solely British ingredients". But, of course.

In Northumberland we support anything British brewed, which makes people go to local pubs, albeit I accept that Wetherspoons is a chain. I suspect the beer may sell well.

Sifting through the New Years Honours I was pleased to see a knighthood for the Liberal MP for Colchester, Sir Bob Russell MP, who who was first elected when Nick Clegg was only four years old! In this media age the several pensioners in parliament still have a great deal of insight, experience and wisdom to offer. Sir Bob is easily identifiable on the front row of the Liberal benches, albeit he does not hold office. He tends to look like he has been dragged through a hedge backwards and then dressed down by Shirley Williams. However, he is a nice man, and as reported in Lib Dem Voice, he has accepted the honour in a similar way to that other famous class warrior, John Prescott, with a nice one liner:
"I have spent my entire adult life fighting the establishment but clearly, I have failed.”

As a footnote, on the same website, only the Liberals could be running a poll for "your favourite Liberal of the year" with the choice including Hugh Grant, Occupy London, Ken Clarke and Hilary Clinton = and not one actual Liberal! You could not make it up.
Full details on both stories at: http://www.libdemvoice.org/sir-bob-russell-mp-i-have-spent-my-entire-adult-life-fighting-the-establishment-but-clearly-i-have-failed-26450.html

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

The need for local banks - our big campaign for 2012

I have been much impressed by the work of the New Economic Foundation [NEF], which describes itself as "a think and can do tank". I attended their Better Banking Conference before Christmas, and have been particularly impressed with the writings of Andrew Simms and Tony Greenham, who collectively urge a focus in banking away from City institutions and into towards local banks.
This is the issue of our times, as without a better banking system our economy will struggle.
I spoke about this in the House in November during the manufacturing debate.
In my opinion, very quietly there is a banking revolution going: Metro Bank has set up from scratch, Virgin Money is now a new player, and just before Christmas the Co-operative Bank successfully took over 632 branches of Lloyds: this is welcome news. It heralds a challenge to the banking status quo on the high street.
But we need to do more.

As Tony Greenham puts it: "The highly concentrated British banking market stands out like a sore thumb internationally. Not because we have large global banks — others have those too — but because a tier of domestic banking is completely absent from Britain: local banks.

The idea that smaller local banks might provide the economic bedrock for businesses and consumers seemed rather quaint and old-fashioned during the banking bubble of the past two decades. After all, who needs local branch managers to assess loan risk with their knowledge of the applicant and the local economy, when mathematicians can manipulate spreadsheets until risk disappears? The future is in futures, don’t you know.

Since the financial crash, the merits of a vibrant system of local banks have become apparent. We need only look at, for instance, Germany, Switzerland and America. These economies not only have large global banks; they have an economically significant sector of smaller community-based and mutual banks — about 70% of the banking market in the case of Germany.

Studies of the German savings banks, a network of 430 independent but mutually supporting local institutions, show they have made modest but steady profits through both booms and recessions. The mighty Deutsche Bank, by contrast, plunged from huge profits to calamitous losses. The Swiss cantonal banks, focused exclusively on the economic health of their own regions, increased lending to small businesses after the credit crunch, the opposite of what has happened here.

That is the sort of bank that Northern Rock could and should have been, before it crashed - a bank focused on savings and loans for households and businesses in and around Newcastle. Not a Mini-Me international investment bank focused on pleasing the City down south.

Britain needs to create a local banking system, and fast, if we are to ensure businesses and customers across the country get access to sensible and stable credit and other essential banking services.

We need new banks founded on the principle of using credit to support manufacturing and start-ups over financial speculation and playing the commercial property market. Banks that are duty-bound to serve all citizens in their area and not leave the disadvantaged to the shady world of loan sharks and moneychangers. Retail banks that are not run by investment bankers."
Wise words

Very shortly I am meeting Hector Sants of the FSA, with Andrew Tyrie, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, to discuss the creation of local banks. The likely fate of the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which we all own 83%, will be key.

I would hope to see the usage of RBS into a system of locally governed banks — a local bank for every city and county. Ownership could be community or private - several individuals and County Councils are looking at setting up local banks.

They would be governed locally. Lending decisions would be made by managers who understood the economy around them better than anyone at London head office ever could. These managers could base their judgments on knowledge of people and businesses, and the local climate, without being overruled by a computer or centralised targets.

Their mission would be to recycle savings locally and to expand credit for productive loans that benefited the local area, but to do so on a sound commercial footing.

I have no doubt local banks will make a big difference.

Monday, 2 January 2012

The Bridges of Northumberland County


Northumberland is rightly famous for its amazing bridges across the River Tyne. After a 2 year campaign the rebuilding of the bridge at Wark is continuing and all credit to Councillor Edward Heslop, the Northumberland Council, and the band of brothers [and sisters] that are the good men and women of Wark, who have so long championed their bridge and their village [they are pictured at our first meeting in 2009].
The staged repair of the bridge is going well, but I learn that the bridge at Corbridge is also needing repair: it is iconic as the only bridge that survived the great flood of 1771 - which swept away all others. There has been a crossing here since Roman times and it will continue but limited only to 10 tons - which is still not bad, given that this bridge was built in 1674! Full credit to the local and county council for the work that they are doing.

2012 - A foretaste of what is to come

Back at work on a beautiful crisp clear morning in London: 2012 clearly the weather is telling us the climate is changing!
- This is the year of:
March 20: Northumberland Day in the House of Commons, and our kickstart to the Northumberland Tourist Season
May 3: Boris will beat Ken Livingstone for the Mayoral Elections and finally consign Livingstone to the electoral scrap heap
May 13: Newcastle beat Man City and Everton on successive weekends to qualify for Europe
2, 3, 4 and 5 June: Queens Diamond Jubilee: Prudhoe will be the place to be over that weekend, given the advanced state of the preparations + what is planned
June 9: 150th anniversary of the Blaydon Races
July: London Olympics and the East Tynedale Olympics in Northumberland
August: our biggest Charity walk ever - as we tackle the Pennine Way - this will make the Hadrians Wall walk look like a morning jog.
November 6: Obama beats Romney to win the USA Presidential Election
November 15: Police Commissioner elections in Northumberland and all across England

The Alternative 2012 Highlights are as follows [this courtesy of Matthew Normans recent piece]:
George Lucas begins pre-production in March on Star Wars VII: Revenge Of The Milibandroids, with R2-D2 as David and C-3PO as Little Ed. Chucky, the serial killer doll from the Child’s Play movies, is brought out of retirement to portray Ed Balls.

After Nicolas Sarkozy loses the French presidential election in May, he blames David Cameron for his defeat. Upon being woken at 4am with the news, Nick Clegg releases a statement welcoming the socialist candidate’s victory. The next day, he issues a clarification, describing Sarkozy’s demise as “a tragedy for Europe, for which I hold the Prime Minister personally and directly responsible”.

In early July, John McEnroe and Boris Becker unite to make their annual pronouncement that this, beyond doubt, is Andy Murray’s year. He reaches the Wimbledon semi-final, and leads Rafael Nadal by a set and a break before… but some things you can predict for yourselves.

In September, after the 93rd emergency eurozone summit of the year in Brussels, Angela Merkel and the new president of France issue a joint communiqué celebrating the salvation of the euro. Relieved global stock markets climb sharply on the news, and 7.3 seconds later sink to their lowest levels since 1973.
More Europeans buy pounds...