Please note: This site covers the period that I was the Member of Parliament for Bedford from May 2010 to June 2017. I am now the Member of Parliament for North East Bedfordshire. Please visit my new website: www.richardfuller.co.uk for the latest news and information.
I receive a great many ‘click and send’ emails from constituents via lobbying websites. These are a great way for local people to let me know their views on a variety of issues but in order to save resources I now publish my responses to the most popular campaigns here. This also allows me to post updates to fast moving topics, so that people can access the most up to date information.
Click an issue title below to see my response. If you have any further concerns or questions after reading my response please do feel free to contact me again.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about diesel cars.
Ministers are not seeking to penalise drivers who use diesel cars. A number of measures have been taken across the board to improve air quality.
Since 2011, more than £2 billion has been committed to increase the uptake of ultra-low emissions vehicles and support greener transport schemes, with a further £290 million committed in 2016 to support electric vehicles, low emission buses and taxis, and alternative fuels.
These measures have focussed not just on diesel cars but also on the role that all types of vehicles can play in terms of improving air quality. For example, the Green Bus Fund involved £89million of funding helping to purchase over 1,200 green buses. Most recently, in July 2016, £30m of funding was allocated to help add a further 300 green buses to fleets.
Ministers have also implemented a range of measures to encourage the uptake of alternatively-fuelled commercial vehicles. These include extending the Plug-in Van Grant to encompass heavier lorries, a £20m Future Fuels for Flight and Freight Competition, and £20 million funding to enable the freight and logistics sector to trial the very latest in innovative low and zero emission vehicle technologies in their fleets.
In order to further improve national air quality, the 2015 national air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide introduced the concept of a Clean Air Zone, which is an area where targeted action is taken to improve air quality. In light of both updated information on real world emissions from diesel vehicles and the High Court judgement last year, however, the Government intends to be publish a revised air quality plan for nitrogen dioxide shortly. The consultation will address the measures needed to reduce nitrogen dioxide concentrations and so I am unable to pre-empt what those measures might be.
I know that the Prime Minister is very conscious of the fact that past governments have encouraged people to buy diesel cars, and I am sure that Ministers will take this into account.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about sentencing for offences of animal cruelty.
There is a robust legal framework to tackle animal cruelty in the Animal Welfare Act 2006, which makes it an offence to cause unnecessary suffering to any animal.
The law, and the penalties for breaking it, were reviewed by the Parliamentary Select Committee for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in 2012. At that time, the Committee did not recommend increasing the maximum sentencing available to the courts. However, the previous cap in the fine for charges of animal abuse has been removed, and those convicted can now face an unlimited fine. The Ministry of Justice is currently considering whether there is a case for increasing the penalties further.
The courts must decide what the penalty should be for each individual case, taking into account its circumstances and the guidelines laid down by the Sentencing Council. There has recently been a public consultation into sentencing guidelines for these crimes, which resulted in the Council confirming the removal of the cap on the financial element of the penalty, and clarifying a range of relevant factors that would indicate a more serious offence.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about neonicotinoid insecticides and bees.
Bees and other pollinators play a vital role in the security of our food supply and the quality of our environment. I welcome the work the Government has done over the last few years to protect them, most recently through its National Pollinator Strategy.
While we remain in the EU the UK will continue to meet its obligations under EU law, including restrictions on neonicotinoids. There are rules providing for the use of normally restricted products to be authorised in emergency situations to protect crops. If emergency authorisation is granted, this does not mean that the ban has been lifted: the facility to allow strictly controlled, targeted uses of pesticides under an emergency authorisation is an essential feature of precautionary bans.
These decisions are taken based on recommendations from the Expert Committee on Pesticides, the independent body of scientists that advises the Government. It takes all environmental factors into account, including the effects of using greater quantities of less effective alternative pesticides. More details about the Expert Committee, including minutes of meetings and the advice it has provided to Ministers, are available here.
As part of the preparation for exiting the EU, Ministers are considering future arrangements for pesticides. Their highest priority will continue to be the protection of people and the environment and, taking the advice of the independent Expert Committee on Pesticides, they will base these decisions on a careful scientific assessment of the risks.
Ancient woodland is a precious habitat and I note that the National Planning Policy Framework already contains protections for it. It states that planning permission should be refused for development that would result in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees elsewhere. This can only be overridden if the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.
The recent Housing White Paper went further, announcing a proposal to clarify planning policy on ancient woodland and aged or veteran trees, upgrading their protection to the same level as the green belt. Ministers are now considering everyone’s views on the proposal in the White Paper as they develop this further. I am hopeful this will achieve the protection of “wholly exceptional” that many constituents are seeking.
Ministers want to protect and enhance our woodland habitats. Over 11 million trees were planted in the last Parliament and there is a pledge to plant a further 11 million in this one. England’s woodland cover is now expanding at a rate that has not been seen since the fourteenth century.
I was unable to attend the debate in the House of Commons on 30 March owing to prior commitments, but I understand it was a valuable opportunity to discuss animal welfare. If you would like to watch a recording of the debate, you can do so here.
The debate focused on a recent report by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, and in particular on the issues of sentencing for animal cruelty offences and pet sales by third parties.
The Government responded to the Committee’s recommendations in full, noting the conclusions of its recent consultation on introducing a new Animal Activities License. Under its proposals, anyone breeding and selling three litters or more within twelve months will need to be licensed by their local authority, as will anyone breeding commercially. This should take the number of people in England who need a licence from 600 to around 5,000.
I am concerned that a ban in third-party sales would be extremely difficult to enforce. It would require local authorities, already under pressure to enforce licensing requirements, to expend further resources verifying that all sales to end customers were being handled directly by the breeder. There is also concern that such a ban would drive sales onto the black market, which would be worse for the animals involved.
When sentencing in cases of animal cruelty the courts must decide what penalty should apply in each case, taking into account its circumstances and the Sentencing Council’s guidelines. Currently, in addition to the maximum penalty of six months’ imprisonment and/or an unlimited fine, the courts can also disqualify offenders from keeping animals. While this issue is kept under review, recent experience does not suggest that the courts are finding their current sentencing powers inadequate.
Yemen has historically been a fragile state, characterised by high population growth, food and water scarcity, female illiteracy and widespread poverty and economic stagnation. Clearly the conflict has contributed to further instability in Yemen, with extensive damage to infrastructure. According to the UN, 18.8 million Yemenis are now in need of humanitarian assistance.
Saudi Arabia entered the conflict in Yemen in support of the legitimate Government of President Hadi. The UK is not part of this Saudi-led coalition but we do support its aims, which are backed by a UN resolution and a legitimate request for help from the Government of Yemen.
I appreciate that arms exports are a concern. The first point to make is that Saudi Arabia has a right to defend itself and to answer the call of the legitimate Government of Yemen in coming to their aid. The second point is that the UK has a very tough arms export control regime. Each successive licence is weighed up against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. The key test is whether there is a clear risk that the items concerned might be used in the commission of a serious violation of international humanitarian law. The situation is kept under careful and continuous review, and international humanitarian law is at the forefront of Ministers’ minds when they weigh up each successive licence.
The UK Government continues to urge all parties to the conflict to take all reasonable steps to allow the delivery and distribution of aid, and to facilitate rapid and safe humanitarian access, as well as calling upon all sides to do everything possible to prevent civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
It remains the case, however, that a political solution is the best way to bring long-term stability. The UK is playing a leading role in diplomatic efforts, supporting the UN Special Envoy’s tireless efforts to achieve this.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the debate on badger culling.
Unfortunately, prior commitments meant I was unable to attend the recent Westminster Hall debate on this issue. I would like to share with you the Minister’s response to the debate, which explains the Government’s approach to the issue. You can watch the Minister’s response to the debate here.
Personally, I would like to see a viable vaccine developed and rolled out as swiftly as possible so that culls are not necessary.
Ministers remain fully committed to creating a safe environment for all road users, and in particular vulnerable road users such as cyclists and pedestrians. Sections 204-225 of the Highway Code aim to educate and remind drivers of the needs of more vulnerable road users, including both cyclists and pedestrians.
A revised version of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD) came into force in April 2016, which contains a number of measures designed to improve the safety of cyclists on the road, including low level cycle signals, a new type of crossing and changes to advanced stop lines. TSRGD also includes changes that make it easier for local authorities to introduce 20mph speed limits in residential areas.
The Department for Transport is also working on cyclist safety in other ways, including changes to vehicle design, publicity, campaigns, as well as mandatory training for HGV drivers and optional training for cyclists.
I understand that the Department for Transport is looking at the issues raised in the Turning the Corner campaign, and that they are currently determining the best way forward.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the amendments to the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill that were added by the House of Lords.
I can confirm that I did not vote in support of the Lords amendments.
I am keen to ensure that the rights of EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in EU states are secured as swiftly as possible and I know that the Prime Minister shares this goal. I was one of five Conservative Members of Parliament who supported an Opposition motion in July 2016 to grant automatic rights to EU nationals, and I am still strongly in favour of doing so. The Government would have liked to have reached agreement to do this already, but some EU member states have wished to wait until negotiations begin. The Prime Minister has said securing citizens’ rights will be a priority in the negotiations.
In my view, amending the Article 50 Bill was the wrong place to do seek to do this and would have been a meaningless gesture. Similarly, Parliament has, and will continue to have, its say on the negotiation process, as well as having a vote on the final withdrawal deal. The Lords amendment requiring parliamentary approval was, therefore, disingenuous.
The Bill has a straightforward purpose to deliver the referendum result and allow the Government to start the withdrawal negotiations. I welcome the fact that it has now been passed by both Houses of Parliament.
The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has now confirmed that she has referred the proposed takeover of Sky by Twenty-First Century Fox to Ofcom and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on the grounds of media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards.
Ofcom and the CMA will now be required to investigate and report back to the Secretary of State by 16th May 2017.
As you may also be aware, Ofcom has a duty to be satisfied that broadcast licensees are fit and proper on an ongoing basis and it has separately announced that it will be reviewing Sky’s fitness to hold broadcasting licences in the event of a change of control.
I appreciate constituents’ concerns about NHS funding.
The Government has actively supported the NHS’ own plan for the future: the Five Year Forward View. This plan calls for an additional £10 billion of investment per annum in real terms by 2020/21 – compared to 2014/15 – to fund a transformation in care and this is exactly what the Government has agreed to provide. The Government is investing nearly £4 billion of that this year which, as the Chief Executive of NHS England has said, will ‘kick-start’ the transformation of provision.
Locally, this has been an issue under discussion for some time and I have been working hard, along with representatives of all political parties across Bedford, to secure the future of our local health services. Since becoming your MP, I have assertively defended our hospital from the misguided Milton Keynes – Bedford healthcare review, which was driven by bureaucrats in NHS England.
Last year, I held a debate in Parliament on this issue and I have also raised it during Prime Minister’s Questions. I have held a number of discussions with the Secretary of State for Health, and I have regular meetings the Chief Executive of Bedford Hospital, the leader of the local NHS Sustainability and Transformation Plan (STP) process, and with Bedfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group.
Whilst I was unfortunately unable to attend the Estimates Day debate on 27th February, I hope that this demonstrates my commitment to securing the future of our health services locally.
The Families with Children and Young People in Debt (Respite) Bill, introduced by Kelly Tolhurst MP, would place a duty on lenders to provide financial respite for families with children and young people in debt.
The Government has committed to exploring whether some form of ‘breathing space’ would be a useful and viable addition to the range of debt solutions. HM Treasury and the Insolvency Service have been asked to explore and identify possible options and have begun work on a review.
Further to this, action has been taken to reduce levels of personal debt. Household debt as a proportion of income has fallen to 142 per cent in 2016, down from a peak of 160 per cent in 2008. The Government’s plan for a higher wage, lower welfare society makes it easier for families and working people to save, and includes the new National Living Wage which will mean a pay boost for 1.7 million workers this year.
I share the concerns of many constituents to secure the rights of EU nationals already in the UK and I have been calling for the Government to do this for some time. It is of course difficult for the UK to seek an early settlement of this issue when other EU Member States are refusing to consider the issue.
During the debate on the Article 50 Bill, I called for the Government to consider other ways in which it can secure the rights of EU nationals:
“I want to comment further on the rights of EU nationals. I was one of five Conservative Members of Parliament who supported the Opposition motion to grant automatic rights to EU nationals, and I am still strongly in favour of doing so. The conversation has been about whether we should do that unilaterally or through the negotiations. It has also been commented that the Government have a responsibility to look after the interests of British citizens in other EU countries, and that is undoubtedly true, but I do not believe that it is legitimate to hold one as a counterbalance to the other. I therefore ask the Government to look again at this issue, and to investigate a third option of securing rights bilaterally rather than multilaterally or unilaterally.”
I will continue to press the Government on this issue and I hope that it will be possible to secure a deal shortly that protects EU nationals in the UK and British nationals in EU states.
The House of Commons has now approved, unamended, the Bill conferring power on the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50.
Many of the issues that are commonly raised will be dealt with at various stages of the negotiations over the next two years. There will also be further opportunity to address such issues when we consider the Great Repeal Bill and when Parliament has a vote on the final deal which the Prime Minister negotiates with the EU.
As we are now going into negotiations, it is important that the Government has a strong hand. It is encouraging that the Prime Minister is listening and speaking for the 100%, for example, in her Lancaster House speech. It is also important that the Prime Minister has a free hand to get the best possible deal for the UK.
During the debate on the Article 50 Bill, I spoke about my own views on the issue. You can read my contribution here.
I appreciate concerns about bowel cancer and I recognise that early diagnosis is key.
The NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme offers screening using a self-sampling kit every two years to men and women aged 60 to 74 who are registered with a GP. The NHS bowel cancer screening programme in England began in 2006. The programme in England initially offered screening to men and women aged 60 to 69 because the risk of bowel cancer increases with age. More than 80% of bowel cancers are diagnosed in people aged 60 or over. In the pilot, which was conducted in the late 1990s and early 2000s, more than three times as many cancers were detected in people aged over 60 than in those aged under 60, and people in their 60s were most likely to use a testing kit.
However, to ensure that screening coverage is increased, the NHS Bowel Cancer Screening Programme is currently rolling out bowel scope screening to men and women around the time of their 55th birthday. Bowel scope screening is a one-off examination which is an alternative and complementary bowel screening methodology.
The UK National Screening Committee advises Ministers and the NHS about all aspects of screening policy. It keeps the evidence for new and existing screening programmes under review and will provide further advice when new evidence becomes available.
At the same time, all hospital trusts are able to offer screening for patients if clinically appropriate. New cancer referral guidelines by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence published in June 2015 state that GPs should refer patients for testing if they present with relevant symptoms at relevant ages.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about a state visit to the UK by President Trump.
There has been a significant amount of coverage – and reaction – to this upcoming visit.
Parliament will debate this topic due to the considerable number of signatures to a petition. I will not attend this debate and I will vote to support Mr Trump’s visit if there is a vote.
The United States is our closest ally and trading partner. The US held an election and Mr Trump won the election.
If the Government and Her Majesty believe a State visit is appropriate, I endorse this view.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about NHS pay and nurses.
I did attend the Westminster Hall Debate on 30th January and I raised concerns about the effect of pay restraint locally:
“I add my congratulations to the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. She has somewhat moved on to the topic of Brexit. In Bedford hospital, to fill vacancies in our nursing staff we have relied on bringing in staff from the European Union. Does she not agree that the Government have a choice: they can continue with pay restraint if they wish, but if so we must retain that ability to attract people from within the European Union and secure the rights of those already here?”
I can also confirm that, following recommendations from the independent pay review bodies, the NHS Pay Review Body and the Doctors’ and Dentists’ Review Body, the Government accepted a 1 per cent pay rise for doctors, dentists and all NHS staff on Agenda for Change contracts for 2016 to 2017.
Delivering a safer 7-day NHS for patients is a government priority. An important part of this is that the NHS has to ensure it has the right staff, in the right place, at the right time to provide high quality services across the week. The NHS already has 32,000 extra clinical staff, including more than 10,000 additional doctors and more than 10,600 additional nurses on its wards since May 2010.
To help support NHS staff in their duty of care, the Government has committed to increase NHS spending in England by £10 billion in real terms by 2020, of which £6 billion will be delivered by the end of 2016/17. By cutting bureaucracy and championing higher standards, Ministers have ensured this money goes on frontline care not administration.
Immigration policy in the United States is clearly a matter for the United States, just as immigration policy for this country should be set here. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it clear that the recent changes to US immigration policy are not measures that the British Government would consider.
Our Government held conversations with the US Government, interceding on behalf of UK nationals and UK passport holders and securing important protections for them. We now have assurances that all British passport holders remain welcome to travel to the US, irrespective of their country of birth or whether they hold another passport. The US has also reaffirmed its strong commitment to the expeditious processing of all travellers from the United Kingdom.
I understand that the immigration order is currently suspended following a ruling and is now the subject of legal proceedings, under consideration by an appeal court.
The importation of fur products is tightly regulated. It is currently illegal to import seal skins and furs derived from cats or dogs, or products made from them. If the fur is from an endangered species protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), its import and trade will be subject to CITES controls, as will any body part of that species also being imported or traded. These controls are implemented by the EU Wildlife Trade Regulations.
In addition, under European regulations it is prohibited to import furs or fur products from 13 wild animal species originating in countries where they are caught by leg-hold traps, or trapping methods that do not meet international standards of humane trapping. Strict rules are in also place in the European Union to ensure that animals kept for fur production are kept, trapped and slaughtered humanely.
Labelling of fur products for consumers is covered by The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
Once the UK has withdrawn from the EU it will be for the Government to consider future policies, taking into account the outcome of exit negotiations. I am not aware of any intention to lessen the existing standards, and will be interested to monitor the position as it develops.
I recognise that the changing demography of the country – a rising total population and a significant increase in life expectancy – means that the NHS has, and will remain, under sustained pressure of unprecedented demand. Since being elected as your MP in 2010, I have maintained a regular, and thorough, dialogue with our local health care providers – both GPs and, most importantly, with the staff and management of Bedford Hospital.
This winter, the NHS made more extensive preparations than previously and, having increased the number of doctors by 11,400 and hospital nurses by 11,200 since 2010, staffing is in place to manage. To support the NHS, investment of £350 million was included in local Clinical Commissioning Group budgets in 2016/17 for resilience planning, and £50 million was made available for national initiatives. The NHS also assured the winter plans of every trust, launched the largest ever flu vaccination programme and bolstered support outside A&Es, with 12,000 additional GP sessions offered over the festive period.
As a consequence of this preparation and, most importantly, the hard work of frontline staff, the system overall is coping and even performing slightly better than last year. Earlier in December, it treated a record number of patients within four hours and we are seeing 2,500 more patients within the four hour standard every single day compared with 2010. In my most recent discussion with the Chief Executive of Bedford Hospital, he advised me that the hospital was performing well above national average A&E performance on many metrics and that there had been no use of “trollies in corridors” due to wards being overcrowded.
I shall continue to monitor local A&E performance and, in Parliament, hold the Government to account for its actions to improve the performance, quality and efficacy of our NHS.
I agree that high-quality mobile services are vital to residents in Bedford and it’s important that we have a mobile market that is fair and competitive.
Ofcom is responsible for the health of the UK mobile market, in line with its statutory duties. These duties include the promotion of competition and efficient use of spectrum.
Ofcom recently launched a consultation on the upcoming spectrum auction. The auction consists of 2.3 GHz spectrum, which is already useable for better 4G services and 3.4 GHz spectrum which is unlikely to be useable for at least two to three years, but could help unlock a new wave of future services such as 5G.
Ofcom agrees that there is a competition concern around the 2.3 GHz spectrum available and it has therefore imposed a cap on bidding. The cap prevents any one company holding more than 45 per cent of spectrum that can be used immediately after the auction. It also argues that by the time 3.4 GHz spectrum is usable, other bands will become available and there is therefore no immediate necessity for action on competition grounds in respect of this spectrum.
Ofcom has been clear that its intervention has been minimal as it does not want to distort the auction by giving the smaller operators a price break through the weakening of competition. Furthermore, there are concerns it would provide a perverse incentive for smaller operators to under-bid in this and future auctions if they always expected intervention in their favour on grounds of lacking spectrum.
I welcome Ofcom’s focus on ensuring effective competition in the mobile market and on getting the spectrum into use as quickly as possible.
I appreciate many constituents are concerned about the effect of illegal poaching and ivory trafficking on the long-term prospects for the survival of the elephant.
The Government recently hosted the London Conference on Wildlife Trafficking. Over 40 countries adopted the London Declaration in an effort to save iconic species, including elephants, from being poached to the brink of extinction. The Buckingham Palace Declaration followed with a range of commitments to help the private sector tackle this illegal trade.
The UK made available £13 million for various projects through the Illegal Wildlife Trade Challenge Fund, and is now doubling that funding. It is also training rangers in Gabon, home of Africa’s largest population of forest elephants, to combat poaching.
UK law does not permit trade in raw ivory tusks of any age, and Ministers are pressing for this approach to be taken internationally. The Government has also announced plans to ban sales of modern-day ivory, which will put the UK’s rules on ivory sales among the toughest in the world. I understand that a consultation on these plans is due to be held shortly and I would encourage anyone with an interest to make their views known directly to the consultation. You may also be interested to know that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has adopted a proposal calling for the closure of all domestic ivory markets.
Ministers also recognise the growing threats to the Asian elephant from the illegal trade in live animals, fed by demand from the tourist and entertainment industries. The UK has been working through CITES to increase protections worldwide.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the Homelessness Reduction Bill, which I fully support.
The Bill will provide significant support to those who are about to or have already been made homeless.
The Bill will place a new duty on councils to support those who are homeless. Councils will be required to help those threatened with homelessness or who are already homeless find a home.
I was pleased to attend the Second Reading of the Bill last October, as well as the final stages of the Bill in the House of Commons on 27th January. The Bill has now passed its Commons stages and will be sent to the House of Lords for consideration.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the proposed takeover of Punch Taverns PLC by Heineken.
While I appreciate the concerns that have been expressed over the potential move, this does remain a commercial matter. I understand that an offer currently rests with Punch shareholders. This will, of course, be subject to regulatory approval and receive appropriate scrutiny from the competition authorities.
Ultimately, the UK has benefited greatly from being an open and free economy. British companies have been successful in attracting investment into the UK and generating the wealth that the nation needs to prosper.
Police support animals make a valuable contribution in the detection and prevention of crime and in maintaining public safety. I am extremely grateful for the bravery and skill shown by police dogs and their handlers on a daily basis. Attacks of any sort on police dogs or horses are unacceptable and should be dealt with severely under the criminal law.
Under the Animal Welfare Act 2006 an attack on a police dog or other police support animal can be treated as causing unnecessary suffering to an animal, and the maximum penalty is 6 months’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine, or both. Indeed the financial element of the penalty was raised in 2015 from a maximum fine of £20,000. Similarly an attack on a police animal could be considered by the court as an aggravating factor leading to a higher sentence. Under some circumstances assaults on support animals could be treated as criminal damage which would allow for penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment.
The Government has also requested that the Sentencing Council considers assaults on police animals as an aggravating factor as a part of their current review on guidelines for sentencing in the Magistrates’ Courts, which includes animal cruelty offences.
While the current penalties are broadly in line with those in place in other countries, including the USA, I agree that it is unpalatable to think of police animals as merely ‘equipment’ as the charge of criminal damage might suggest, and does not convey the respect and gratitude felt for the animals involved and their contribution to law enforcement and public safety.
The Minister has confirmed that he is working with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to explore whether there is more that the law should do to offer protections to police animals and all working animals.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the Freedom of Information Act.
The Freedom of Information Act has now been in operation for more than a decade, so I believe it is sensible to review its operation.
The Government has established an independent, cross-party Commission to review the Freedom of Information Act and to make sure it is functioning as intended. The Commission received over 30,000 submissions to its call for evidence and it recently held two oral evidence sessions in January 2016. The Commission is now reviewing all the evidence and will report as soon as possible.
I await the Commission’s report and the Government’s response and will be able to comment further at that time.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the consultation on the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter.
The Government’s BBC Charter Review Public Consultation closed in October, and set out 19 different questions. Over 190,000 people responded, which is the second largest response to any government consultation.
The Government is taking the responses extremely seriously and is in the process of reading and analysing each and every one of them, reaching 150,000 in early January. I do not think that it is right to suggest the Government is trying to bury the responses. The volume of responses is proving a logistical challenge and it has taken longer than anticipated, but the Government has been clear that it will be publishing both a summary of the consultation responses and its proposals as soon as it is able.
The Chancellor has today (25th November 2015) announced that he will not be proceeding with the proposed changes to the tax credit threshold and taper. He has confirmed that the Government will still achieve £12 billion of welfare savings, but that he has listened to concerns about changes to tax credits. Rather than bringing in complicated transitional arrangements, the Chancellor has decided to avoid the changes altogether.
I agree that VAT should not be levied on women’s sanitary products. Unfortunately, it is not within the UK Government’s power to reduce the already discounted 5 per cent rate of VAT charged on sanitary products. This is because VAT law is governed by the EU and the EU does not allow the UK, or any other member state, to extend unilaterally the scope of existing zero rates or to introduce new ones.
It is encouraging, however, that the Treasury Minister has confirmed that he will present the proposal to remove VAT on sanitary products to the EU Commission. It will then require the unilateral approval of all other Member States.
The recent amendment to the Finance Bill called only for progress to be made – it was not a vote on abolishing the 5 per cent rate – and, as progress is already happening, I saw no need to support the amendment.
Thank you to those who have contacted me about the plight of refugees and the response by the Government. I have been moved by the comments of many people across Bedford and Kempston expressing, in a humane and constructive way, their views on how we should respond.
The statement on Monday 7th September by the Prime Minister, and the subsequent actions by the national government and local authorities, have been widely reported. I encourage you to read the statement here. A summary of the UK response so far is available here.
I would like to share some of my own thoughts.
Refugees are not migrants in any sense that is useful for how we should respond. The term “refugee” is defined under the Geneva Convention and applies to people who have fled their home nation due to persecution or war. Our response should be based on compassion and a desire to tackle the causes of their flight.
Debates about numbers are misleading. Whether or not 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000 is the “right” number of refugees for a country to take in is not likely to be a precise calculation. The number may well change over time and, of course, the circumstances for each country admitting refugees will be different.
How well we integrate refugees is important. I have been moved by the emails from residents offering their own homes to house refugees. This speaks so well to the compassion that is the core of our town. I was also pleased to hear the Prime Minister announce that we will use the foreign aid budget to finance refugees for the first year to help local councils with support for example for housing. Refugee families, in addition to the issues of settling in a new country, will have special anxieties about the future for their home country. We need, as a community, to be especially welcoming.
Our response should improve, not replace, the established UN refugee processes. I do agree strongly with the Prime Minister’s focus on admitting refugees from the camps in Turkey – an approach that will not undermine existing programmes and that will not further encourage people to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean. This approach should be combined with a thorough review of why certain people are either by-passing the camps or deciding that their situation would be better if they made the attempt – often hazardous, often to the benefit of criminal traffickers – to reach Europe.
The Prime Minister has laid out a coherent framework for the UK’s response and, over the next few weeks, we will see how effectively the Government – both national and local – puts this in to practice. I hope you will do all you can to support these efforts
I welcomed the opportunity for Parliament to debate this issue and the debate on Friday 11th September was excellent, with many well-reasoned arguments put forward. Ultimately, the Bill was rejected in the House of Commons by 330 votes to 118 – a decisive majority. Personally, I voted against making a change in the law and I would like to take this opportunity to outline my reasoning.
Dealing with a terminal illness is a very distressing time for individuals and their families and friends. I believe that terminally ill patients should receive the highest quality palliative support and that those patients, and their families, should be certain that their end-of-life care will meet all of their needs.
I have been thinking deeply about this issue. I have read with great interest emails and letters from my constituents; have reviewed submissions to Parliament by various groups such as the BMA and Scope; and met with the Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, Sarah Wootton.
The parameters provided in the Bill for enabling assisted dying were drawn tightly and would have affected only a very limited number of cases. A strong case was being made on grounds of humanity to permit this to pass.
However, I saw this issue in a wider context. Our judgement on this measure should be based on the principle, not on the presented boundaries for the application of that principle. On this basis, I was quite troubled by the proposal to make a change in the law that would have given official sanction to suicide in certain circumstances. The arguments from the medical profession and from those presenting ethical points of view weighed heavily with me. It is for these reasons that I decided to vote against the Bill.
As you may be aware, the Government withdrew the technical amendments it was intending to make to the Hunting Act.
If further amendments are suggested in future, I shall consider their content at that time, taking into account the views of all of my constituents.
Seal conservation is a devolved issue: approximately 85% of the UK seal population is in Scotland and the Scottish Government has its own legislation concerning the protection of seals.
Seals in England are primarily protected by the Conservation of Seals Act 1970. Under this Act, it is an offence to take or kill common and grey seals out of season or to use certain methods to kill or take, unless permitted to do so by a licence issued under the Act. No licences have been issued for the culling of seals in England in the last five years.
The Act also allows the Secretary of State to provide year round protection in any specified area. Such a ‘Conservation Order’ currently protects grey and common seals on the east coast of England. Given the distribution of seal populations in England, this Order has the net effect of providing year round protection for almost all common seals and the majority of grey seals in England.
However, the Act does permit fishermen to kill a seal if it is deemed to pose a threat to fishing operations. The Government does not have any plans to review this position as it does not have any evidence to suggest that the limited control of seals permitted in England is having an adverse effect on the conservation status of the UK seal population as a whole.
Like you, I would prefer to see non-lethal means of controlling seals being developed so that culling will no longer be thought necessary. I understand that such methods are already in use, and would encourage their extension.
Thank you for contacting me about the British Bill of Rights.
Following a commitment in the Conservative Manifesto, the Government has announced its intention to bring forward proposals for a Bill of Rights to replace the Human Rights Act. The Bill aims to protect existing rights, which are an essential part of a modern, democratic society, and better protect against abuse of the system and misuse of human rights laws.
The Government view is that the Bill of Rights will reform and modernise the human rights framework in the UK and restore common sense to the application of human rights laws, which has been undermined by the damaging effects of the Human Rights Act.
In 2011, an independent Commission on a Bill of Rights was set up to examine the case for a Bill of Rights. The majority of the members of this independent body agreed that there was a case for a Bill of Rights, not least to address the credibility and public ownership gaps that exist with the Human Rights Act.
Ministers are discussing the details of this and will be making further announcements in due course. I believe the argument for reform and modernisation of the human rights framework is compelling and I await the publication of more details with interest.
Personally, I am not supportive of the culling of badgers; I want to see an effective vaccine developed and utilised.
The new Badger Edge Vaccination Scheme in parts of the country that border the high-risk areas of the South West and West Midlands is therefore encouraging. I also welcome the news that cattle movement controls and testing are being strengthened to stop infection spreading between herds, and herd owners are being encouraged to improve their own biosecurity.
I hope that measures like these will soon make culling unnecessary.