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Archive for May, 2012

On Tuesday I held a debate on the Government’s Child Benefit reforms in Westminster Hall. This was a chance for MPs to evaluate the Coalition’s latest plans to take Child Benefit from some families.

 
In this year’s Budget the Government set out plans to introduce a ‘Higher Income Child Benefit Tax Charge’ (HICBTC) through which parents earning over £50,000 will pay back 1% of their child benefit for each £100 of income. When £60,000 or over a parent will pay back all of their benefit.

 

There are two main problems with these changes; they are both unfair and unworkable.

 
When Child Benefit was introduced in 1945 – then known as the Family Allowance – one of its main proponents said “Children are not simply a private luxury. They are an asset to the community”.

 
This was a central argument for making Child Benefit Universal. The Lib Dem-Tory decision to make it dependent upon income disregards the fact that all children our important regardless of their parents’ earnings.

 
What is more, these proposals unfairly penalise single parent families and those families in which one parent stays at home. This is because the charge does not take into account joint income. Two parents earning £49,999 each will keep all their Child Benefit whilst another earning £60,000 will receive none.

 
It was financial discrepancies such as these which led the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW) to label the reforms a ‘disaster waiting to happen’.

 
The reforms could mean that if for unforeseen reasons, a parent’s income rises during the year, perhaps because they have received a bonus, they will face a large bill at the end of the year for unreturned child benefit.

 

With so many families already feeling insecure about their long term finances it is wrong to introduce changes which may further compound their problems.

 
Throughout the debate No one on either side had a good word to say about these changes, except the Minister who despite our numerous concerns showed no signs of changing course.

 

However, no Liberal Democrats were there to defend this awful policy which is being driven through by their party despite opposition from the public and a number of Conservatives.

 
You can read the full debate here; http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmhansrd/cm120522/halltext/120522h0001.htm#12052226000001

 

On Wednesday I met with the Woodland Trust. They are working on a project in Durham in association with the County Council to create at least eight new community woodlands over 350 acres which will be accessible to everyone and will provide a lasting legacy.

 
To do this the Woodland Trust need to raise £60,000 in Durham which will then be more than tripled by funding from the Forestry Commission and other sources.

 
This target seems very achievable given the huge amount of support we have seen for the project in the past. I hope to contact many of the people who have expressed an interest in this in a few weeks with further details.

 

Later that day I met with a representative of the British Beer and Pubs Association in my capacity as Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister to discuss the problems currently being faced by many local pubs.

 

 
In Durham over 1500 people are employed by pubs and breweries and the industry brings £33.1 million in added value to the local economy and £738.3 million to the North East as a whole.

 

 
When properly managed pubs can be a community asset. We do not want to see these pubs put on the line due to the way in which they are charged tax. I will be following up on this meeting by further looking into ways we can ensure that pubs, jobs and responsible drinkers are not bearing the brunt of new taxes.

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This week in parliament I met women parliamentarians from Afghanistan and Pakistan, chaired the All Party University Group and spoke in both the Queen’s Speech debate and a briefing on the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

The Queen’s Speech debate gave me an opportunity to raise the complete lack of a plan for jobs and growth in the Government’s plans which I wrote about last week.

Given the time limit I focused on the Government’s failure to recognise and support the growth potential of businesses in the North East. An Experian report found that County Durham was in the top 20 areas for export potential in the UK, however the Coalition’s decision to abolish Regional Development Agencies such as One North East has left North East commerce without a representative.

The Government should be supporting businesses in the current economic circumstances, rather than accusing them of not doing enough to boost business as Ministers such as William Hague and Philip Hammond have this week.

On Wednesday, in my capacity and Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister, I spoke at a briefing on the NPPF to the corporate law firm Addleshaw Goddard. Following the publication of the NPPF many commentators said that the ambiguity of the framework and the number of ill defined terms would result in increased i

nvolvement for the Planning Inspectorate and Planning Lawyers.

I covered some of this vagueness in my speech focusing on sustainable development, brownfield, guidance, housing delivery and the duty to cooperate. I am particularly concerned about the lack of clarity that has been given over the guidance that remains in place.
The NPPF replaced Planning Policy Statements and Planning Policy Guidance. However, the Department for Communities and Local Government has said that another 6,000 pages of guidance are under review. Local Authorities need to know exactly what guidance remains, what will replace past guidance and when the review is likely to end.
I will be asking Written Parliamentary Questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to shed some light on this confusing state of affairs.

All agreed that the consequences of the NPPF will take time to become clear. The spokesperson for the Department for Communities and Local Government set out her measures of success of the NPPF; more local plans in place by March next year and more planning applications being approved quickly. I would add to this that for the NPPF to have been truly successful we will expect to see more homes, high quality design and greater community engagement in the planning system. Hopefully, we will have a similar event next year to see how far these aims have been achieved.

Finally, I would like to give my support to all the Scouts in the Constituency who have been working hard in Scout Community Week to improve their local area.

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The Queen’s Speech

Today the Queen reopened Parliament and set out the Lib Dem-Tory Coalition’s legislative agenda for the next session. In the speech the Government set out their policy priorities. Worryingly, these priorities seem out of touch with the pressing concerns of a huge number of people suffering under this latest recession.

 
I know from door knocking on Saturday and during the run up to last week’s local elections that what is really concerning people in my constituency and the North East is the lack of jobs, a growing North-South divide and the need to give young people more opportunities in life. Some are also becoming more and more worried that the ‘Bedroom Tax’ will mean that they lose their homes.

 
The measures set out today will do nothing to challenge these concerns.

 
There were some reasonable inclusions; the setting up of the Green Investment Bank (Labour’s Idea), the Groceries Code Adjudicator Bill, measures on parental leave and a draft Bill to modernise adult care and support in England. I have supported these measures in the past and have been involved in pushing for many. But some do not go far enough, for instance on social care, an area on which I have been working through Health and Social Care Commission, the Government has merely promised draft legislation. This means that this session may end without the Government having achieved any tangible improvements.

There were also many worrying announcements. For instance, the Bill on Public Sector Pensions which threatens to produce yet more uncertainty and disquiet for public sector workers who have faced a series of upheavals under this Government.

The House of Lords Reform Bill seems an odd priority in a time of recession and the Government. Although I support the need for some Lords Reform, this should come second to creating the jobs and growth many people are desperate for.

 
I am truly astonished and appalled that the need to grow the economy is hardly mentioned. This is a huge omission accompanied by many others. For instance, after much talk about cracking down on lobbying, no such plans were included.

All told, the Queen’s Speech will do little to tackle the issues being faced by my constituents and many others. I hope to speak in the Commons on Monday to challenge the Government on many of the measures outlined in the Queen’s speech today.

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Parliament Since the Budget

Last week it was announced that the UK has fallen back into recession, the first double-dip recession since 1975. This underlined the need for a plan for jobs and growth. The Government must invest in the economy; Lib Dem-Tory cuts are preventing any growth and further undermining the economy.

This is particularly true in the North East. Our region has the highest unemployment rate in the country with 11.6% people of working age without a job. Particularly worrying is the number of unemployed 16-24 year olds; in County Durham 8.6% of people in this age group are claiming benefits. Many of these young people have yet to have their first ‘proper’ job, if they are not given opportunities soon there is a worry that they will be at a disadvantage in the job market throughout their lives.

The fact is that the North East is bearing the brunt of the Government’s drastic cuts and many people’s lives are suffering as a result. Instead of tackling this in the budget, the Government chose to prioritise a tax break for the rich; 14,000 people earning over £1 million a year are getting a tax cut of £40,000 or more each a year!

Labour will continue to push the Government to tax Bankers’ Bonuses to help create jobs for young people, temporarily cut VAT to put hundreds of pounds more a year into families’ pockets and reverse the cut in the top rate of tax.

In a debate on the budget I challenged the Tory Treasury Minister Chloe Smith MP to visit Durham so that she could see the devastating impact her policies are having on some people in the region. It is important that this out of touch Government realise that their cuts have serious consequences for people’s lives.

We have also seen a number of specific changes to policy that have been both hugely unpopular and which threaten to have a particularly detrimental impact in the North.

For instance, the proposal to charge VAT on static caravans will put 4,340 jobs at risk and could seriously damage some small businesses in the caravan and tourism industries. I have been working with other MPs and businesses in Durham, such as Ideal Caravans in Langley Moor, to oppose the move.

In a debate last week I asked the Treasury to reassess their proposal so as to protect jobs in Durham. I have supported a motion against the rise and am helping to collect signatures for a petition to be presented to the Government.

Following the budget the Government finally published the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

In light of successful campaign fought by Labour and groups such as the National Trust, Town and Country Planning Association and Campaign to Protect Rural England the Coalition made several changes to the draft.

These changes included stronger protections for town centres and high streets, recognition of the value of the countryside and a stronger definition of sustainable development.

However, there are still are many worrying omissions. The Brownfield First Policy is now significantly weaker than that put in place by Labour. The new policy merely encourages the development on Brownfield first whereas Labour’s actively prioritised it. Similarly, despite including the definition we asked for, the Government have not said how this should be achieved.

Most importantly, despite being called the ‘National Planning Policy Framework’ the document isn’t a plan for England as a whole. The Government needs to do more to identify areas that are in need of regeneration and investment and create a planning system which supports these aims.

In my capacity as Shadow Communities and Local Government Minister I raised these issues in a debate last week. On Monday, I again took the opportunity to ask the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles MP, how the NPPF was going to encourage growth in the North East.

Growth and development cannot happen without investment and this Government is doing nothing to encourage investment into areas outside of London and the South East. Last year there were 6 times as many planning applications in the South East than the North East.

Now that the NPPF and the Localism Act have come into force I will be monitoring the impact of the new legislation on communities across the country.

Despite all the economic problems there has been some great news for Durham in the past month.

Ed Miliband, Leader of the Labour Party, will be coming to the Durham Miners’ Gala in July. I am really delighted that he will be able to join us in celebrating our mining heritage in what will be another fantastic family day out.

We have also had news that the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact book in Europe, will now be displayed equally in the British Library and the North East following a very successful fundraising campaign.

This parliamentary session has now ended after the longest parliamentary session for 150 years. The next session will be opened by the Queen’s speech on the 9th of May.

In her speech the Queen will be setting out the Government’s legislative agenda. The Labour Party has developed an ‘alternative Queen’s speech’ which sets out the 5 Bills that we would prioritise if in government, you can see more details of this here; http://labourlist.org/2012/04/miliband-and-balls-unveil-alternative-queens-speech. I will share my own thoughts on the Queen’s speech in my next blog.

Finally, good luck to all the Labour Candidates standing in the Local Elections tomorrow!

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