WELCOME TO MY FIRST WEEKLY UPDATE OF 2024- NO.249
I hope you managed to have a restful break. The new year has arrived with a vengeance where all eyes are on the Post Office scandal which is very relevant to those of us locally who have been involved in the fight for justice by Chirag Sidhpura of Farncombe Post Office. We have also had a disappointing judgement on the Loxley Gas Well case and news from Thames Water regarding supply issues.
WHAT’S GOING ON IN WESTMINSTER
NATIONAL INSURANCE CUT Getting the economy growing means helping businesses fill their vacancies by rewarding work, as I wrote about in this week’s Herald. That is why I announced in the Autumn Statement a cut to the main rate of National Insurance from 12% to 10% which came into effect on Saturday. I marked it with this interview with Nick Robinson on the Today Programme (0810 slot) - a good, testing interview which covered the issues more thoroughly than others I have done recently. The NI cut means 27 million working people across the country are already benefiting from a lower tax bill this year, saving a typical two earner household nearly £1,000 just this year, which I also mention in this video. The Office for Budget Responsibility has said that there will be an equivalent of 94,000 more full-time employees in the workforce in the next five years, filling nearly 10% of vacancies throughout the economy. The most expensive tax cut I announced in the Autumn Statement was actually ‘full expensing’, which means that for every pound a company invests, their taxes are cut by up to 25p. New figures this week show that since Rishi Sunak started introducing these measures, we have had the second highest investment growth in the G7– three times that of the USA.
POST OFFICE Westminster this week is rightly focused on the Post Office Horizon scandal after the moving ITV drama about former sub-postmaster Alan Bates and his efforts to achieve justice for the more than 700 people who wrongly received criminal convictions – including Chirag Sidhpura in Farncombe whose case will be familiar to many people. It was therefore really welcome that Rishi Sunak announced yesterday that the government will be taking the exceptional approach to overturn the convictions that still stand. They will be able to do this by signing a statement confirming that they did not commit the crimes. Post Office minister Kevin Hollinrake has also been working on how to hold Fujitsu, the technology company behind software which led to the wrongful convictions, to account. The government announced a public inquiry into the scandal in 2020 and has paid nearly £150m in compensation - but to me the cover up feels very like what Bishop James Jones described (talking about Hillsborough) as the patronising disposition of unaccountable power. For someone like Chirag to be labelled as a thief and have his livelihood taken away when people ‘higher up’ appeared to know perfectly well he was innocent is stomach-churning. You can read more about his story here.
BUDGET ALERT The Treasury is now very much focussed on the Budget, which will be held on 6th March. As I said on The Rest Is Money podcast with Robert Peston and Steph McGovern this week, we need to think about how to increase productivity in our economy. That includes backing entrepreneurs, and I speak about what I learned when I was starting businesses (including trying rather unsuccessfully to export marmalade to Japan!) before becoming an MP. You can listen to what I say here or wherever you get your podcasts. I also spoke to Martin Lewis earlier this week about a huge range of support being provided for families, which you can watch here.
SWISS CHRISTMAS More prosaically (but actually important for the economy) is the Berne Financial Services Agreement which I travelled to Switzerland to sign just before Christmas. It gives our financial services firms, particularly insurance businesses, unique access to Switzerland’s economy. For any lawyers reading this it is unprecedented because, unlike most trade agreements which try to align the legal structures of both countries, this one means that Swiss companies can work in the UK according to Swiss rules, whilst UK companies can work in Switzerland (an economy worth $800bn in 2022) according to British rules, as I explain in this video.
WHAT’S GOING ON LOCALLY
LOXLEY GAS WELL I was bitterly disappointed to learn this week that the Court of Appeal has refused permission for any further appeal against the UK Oil & Gas planning consent for the Loxley gas well outside Dunsfold. It is an issue I have a personal interest in, living just a mile away, but I know how devastating this news is to residents of Dunsfold and Hascombe. Government ministers (rightly) do not control the courts, but I remain ready to help and support local communities in any way possible going forwards.
THAMES WATER Unfortunately the Thames Water saga continues. I have been contacted by hundreds of constituents who still have not received the level of compensation owed under Thames Water’s guarantee agreement. Thames Water tell me that compensation has now been paid into 12,000 accounts and they are dealing with queries on a manual case-by-case basis. Offering customers the correct level of compensation is key to rebuilding TW’s trust with their customers which is frankly sorely lacking. On Wednesday I met the Interim Chief Executive Al Cochran again following his visit to the public meeting in Guildford in December. We discussed progress on compensation and water resilience issues. Although Al and his team continue to work through compensation claims (they have approximately 700 live cases open) I feel Thames Water still has significant work to do to on this. I was encouraged to learn Thames Water has started work to analyse power fluctuations ahead of the public meeting in March - read my summary of the meeting here, the most recent response I have received from TW here and the BBC’s writeup of my interview on the radio on Monday here.
WATER EVERYWHERE I spent last weekend in contact with the Environment Agency who were closely monitoring water levels after heavy rain. Some areas experienced localised flooding including Elstead, Eashing and parts of Godalming, but the EA did not deem it necessary to raise the Godalming flood defence barriers. But securing that £4m project installed is something I (and many Catteshall residents) feel extremely proud about given the security it now offers when water levels rise.
ELSTEAD HORSES Last Friday evening former Elstead councillor Jenny Else contacted me about some ponies stuck in water in a field where flood water was rising close to The Mill. I called the RSPCA who were able to check urgently on the animals, with repeated inspections on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th (in addition to several private animal welfare agencies). The RSPCA confirmed that they had been in touch with the owner of the ponies about their physical condition and the ponies are well fed and now standing on dry land. The floodwaters have thankfully now receded and longer term I am hoping we can find more appropriate grazing land which doesn't regularly flood. Thank you to Jenny for coming to the rescue on this one.
BRAMLEY FUEL LEAK Workers and many trucks are currently on-site to install a barrier pipe to properties whose supply has unfortunately been under a restriction of use. Preparatory boreholes are also being constructed on-site to kick off the clean-up. Unfortunately because of this, temporary traffic lights have caused major tailbacks on the A281 for a few days, but nonetheless it is great to see lots happening after so long - and particularly thanks to Cllr Jane Austin for her work on this. I am due to have another meeting on this tomorrow with representatives from Asda (who own the petrol station) so will have another update for you next week.
HELP FOR UKRAINIANS MOVING FURNITURE So many people across the constituency kindly opened up their homes to Ukrainian refugees, who have been moving into independent accommodation. Previously the Godalming Town Clerk has been able to help with moving large items but unfortunately the LibDems have decided to stop offering this support. There is a voluntary group trying to help so if anyone has a van or large vehicle they are able to offer for occasional use, please do get in touch with our office by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org and we will pass on your details.
GREEN SPACES CAMPAIGN The Ramblers, a charity for walkers, recently carried out research analysing green footpaths across England. They found that South West Surrey places 69th out of 448 English constituencies for accessible green public rights of way. A respectable ranking but I know that many of you will agree we can do better! Protecting our access to green spaces is one of the reasons I am campaigning for the Surrey Hills to be made into a national park– do remember to sign my petition here…
'HIGHWAY 35' I was deeply moved recently when I read 'Highway 35 - meeting disaster head-on with hope' by local authors and speakers Chris and Denise Arthey, who are constituents and near neighbours. Fifteen years ago they both lost their left legs in a horrible road accident. However, with the support of family, friends, and their church, they’ve both made a remarkable recovery and lead extraordinarily full lives. They both resumed their vocations and Chris returned to endurance sports as a para-athlete. It really is an inspirational story - more details in their short video which you can watch here.
FUNDING FOR CRANLEIGH VILLAGE HALL Brilliant to learn from Angela Richardson MP just before Xmas that £307,754 has been awarded to Cranleigh Village Hall from the Community Ownership Fund scheme through the Department for Levelling Up. Great news for Cranleigh!
GODALMING LITTER PICKERS Well done and thank you to two constituents who picked up three bags full of bottles and cans from the path by Godalming College sports field. But why did they need to? Our national litter habits are such a disappointment.
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… Our Labrador Poppy did not make the news as Westminster Dog of the Year in 2023 but as a dog-loving constituency I am sure you will enjoy this Sky News roundup of dogs that made headlines last year as much as I did.