WELCOME TO MY SOUTH WEST SURREY UPDATE NO.237.
I have had a busy week at the Conservative conference but also locally. It was a big week for British politics and although I usually try to avoid party politics in these newsletters I hope you will forgive me for saying just this once that Rishi Sunak deserves enormous credit for his willingness to deal with extremely difficult issues decisively. Politics should be about substance not style and this will be a conference that is remembered for many years as a result.
WHAT’S GOING ON IN WESTMINSTER (OR MANCHESTER)
CONFERENCE As I wrote in my Herald column this week, I am optimistic about Britain – contrary to many who think our prospects in the world are declining. You don’t just have to take my word for it – the Office for National Statistics confirmed last week that our economy recovered faster from the pandemic than anyone thought, and faster than other big European countries like France or Germany. Of course that doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of things we need to do better as I mentioned in my speech at Conference this week. As a Conservative I want the tax burden to decrease - but we should be honest there are no shortcuts. We need more growth, more efficient public services and a more effective welfare state. There also needs to be a change of approach at the Treasury with a focus not just on short-term cost cutting but longer term cost reduction. The first step in this process is to stop the continual expansion of the Civil Service which has 66,000 more people than at the start of the pandemic - even though the pandemic is over. So I announced a freeze to the expansion of the civil service which will save £1 billion next year alone.
We also need to improve the support we give people to stay in work as we currently have 100,000 people leaving work every year for a life on benefits - with no obligation to look for work. We also have 300,000 people who have been out of work for a year despite having no illness or disability - even though there are around one million vacancies. I appreciate this is an uncomfortable message but it is also not fair that someone who refuses to look for a job is paid the same as someone trying their best. In order to make sure work pays, I therefore announced that the national living wage will be raised to at least £11 an hour, which will be a pay rise for two million of the lowest-paid workers who now get £9,000 a year more than they did in 2010. Most of all we need to stick to the plan to ensure inflation decreases further, and this will continue to be my focus in the run up to the Autumn Statement.
RISHI SUNAK’S SPEECH I have been going to the Conservative Party Conference for many years now and sat through many Prime Ministers’ speeches at them. But I genuinely think that Rishi Sunak’s one this week was something else– decisive and courageous policy announcements with a real insight into his background and the things that make this country so great, including how multi-ethnic our democracy is.
HS2 I am a supporter of high speed rail - but not a project where the costs get so out of control they end up risking every other capital project. It is also the case that business travel on the West Coast Mainline (one of the main justifications for HS2) is still around 50% down from pre-pandemic levels. So I have absolutely no doubt that using the £36 bn to fully electrify rail travel between Liverpool and Hull alongside many other projects will have more economic impact than shaving an additional half an hour off the Manchester to London journey time (which will still go down to 100 minutes because of the London to Birmingham high speed link). Alongside the new ‘Network North’ railway project there will be a new ‘Midlands Rail Hub’ which will connect 50 stations, as well as upgrades to the A1, A2, A5 and M6. Every region except London will be getting the same or more than they were under HS2 so this is not a Treasury cost-cutting exercise.
SMOKING Rishi Sunak also announced that he will be putting forward proposals to raise the smoking age by one year, each year such that 14 year olds today will never be allowed to smoke. This will be a free vote, rather than a party political one. But as a former Health Secretary I am deeply aware of how much of a strain on the NHS smoking is – it causes 64,000 preventable deaths each year – so I am supportive of the proposal. More importantly - like many parents - I just don’t want my three kids to smoke! There will also be measures looking at the flavours, packaging, and display of vapes because they are currently too readily available for children.
EDUCATION The Prime Minister also announced that he will be combining A-levels and T-levels to create a new Advanced British Standard, which all students will take to 18, putting both technical and academic routes on equal footing. This will be another step forward in the transformation of our education system where, over the last decade, England has risen to having the best reading standards in the Western world. We want to end the scandal of any children leaving school unable to read or add up - and this will amount to an extra hour of teaching a day for 16-18 year olds so it is a big deal. But it needs more teachers - so we will offer generous tax-free bonuses to them in the first five years of the profession and prioritise education in all spending reviews. Education is crucial for our children’s prospects and for our society so it is only right that we do so.
WHAT’S GOING ON LOCALLY
GREEN SPACES I am pleased to announce that the first of my series of autumn lunchtime litterpicks will be held on Friday 20th October in Cranleigh. The exact location and time will be announced in due course but save the date and if you are interested in taking part please let me know on firstname.lastname@example.org
SURGERY STORIES My first call was to a remarkable lady from Hindhead with three disabled children. We discussed the challenges around the benefits system and direct payments where technically a disabled person is an employer but without necessarily the knowledge of the legal responsibilities that involves. I said I would talk to the transition team in Surrey and write to the Minister for Disabled People to share her broader concerns about the interaction between the benefit and health system.
Then I spoke to a lady from Farncombe who is having trouble getting through to a manager at HMRC which I will raise with them directly (my government responsibility). She also suffered from a hospital cover up (not local) over her mother's death which is an issue I sadly came across a lot when I was health secretary so I am going to support her with the Health Service Ombudsman.
I then spoke to a lady running a nursery in Godalming who wants to move to a better site and has been having frustrating difficulties. She wants better support from Surrey County Council - I will do what I can because we need to expand childcare provision nationally following my expansion of free childcare in the budget.
CHIEF CONSTABLE TIM DE MEYER Last Friday I had my first meeting with Surrey Chief Constable Tim De Meyer. We talked about the need to improve the service to victims of rape and sexual offences (for which he is the national lead), a spate of burglaries in Dunsfold and other villages, vandalism in Farnham and the need to reduce the time police officers spend on paperwork.
CHARLIE COSSER It was a privilege - but a heartrending one - to meet Steve and Martin Cosser who lost their beautiful son Charlie to a vicious stabbing in July. They are campaigning to make sure other families do not have to go through the agony they have. I have known Steve and his wife Sheila for many years and they are a wonderful family - needless to say I will be doing all I can to help them.
SMALL BUSINESSES I had an excellent meeting with the Federation of Small Businesses and some of their members. We discussed everything from the level of tax to our long term growth as well as how to reduce the burdens on small businesses and make sure they can hire the workers they need - including the childcare reforms in the budget.
HOMELESSNESS I also met two local residents to discuss homelessness. When people get section 21 notice from a landlord, they are told by Waverley they have to be forcibly evicted otherwise they would be intentionally homeless and therefore ineligible for council housing. That makes the process incredibly stressful as they have to go through a court process. If they want to move out they struggle to raise money for the deposit on a new place whilst their existing deposit is still tied up in their current house. Their suggestion was that Waverley should guarantee people's rent rather than offer to rehouse them (which will often be a long way away). The government is looking at section 21 in the Renters Reform Bill but I said I would raise the issue with Michael Gove and Waverley.
GODALMING COLLEGE Great to answer - very difficult - questions from the students at Godalming College on Friday!
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JOIN ME Want to get more involved locally? Email me at email@example.com to join my growing team supporting our work in our community.
AND FINALLY… ‘See you later alligator’ seems to have new meaning in the US… lucky that we haven’t yet had one trying to get into party conferences here in the UK!