Welcome to my issues page. Here I will address a number of issues which have been raised by constituents in an effort to answer what my views are on the things that matter to you. I hope this will enable constituents to access my views more easily and prevent them from having to write to me to find out!
Sentencing for Animal Abusers
I am pleased that we have a robust legal framework to tackle this vicious behaviour 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, I am pleased to say that the previous cap in the fine charges of animal abuse can attract has been removed, and I can also tell you that the Ministry of Justice is now looking at 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.
Bees and pesticides
Thank you for contacting me about neonicotinoid insecticides and bees.
I entirely agree with you that 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 European Union the United Kingdom will continue to meet its obligations under European Union law, including restrictions on neonicotinoids.
As part of the preparation for exiting the European Union, 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.
Thank you for contacting me regarding the plight of the elephant and the ivory trade.
Like you, I am seriously concerned about the effect of illegal poaching and ivory trafficking on the long-term prospects for the survival of the elephant.
Just how seriously the Government takes this issue was demonstrated when it held 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. This is an important step as we press for a complete ban and I am delighted that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species 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 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species to increase protections worldwide.
I hope to have reassured you that the UK is fully committed to protecting the elephant.
As you are probably aware, Sky has received an approach from 21st Century Fox to acquire the 61 per cent share of Sky that it does not yet already own.
Under the powers set out in the Enterprise Act 2002, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport has a quasi-judicial role that allows her to intervene on the basis of specified media public interest considerations. These considerations refer to the need for there to be a sufficient plurality of media ownership, for the availability of a wide range of high-quality broadcasting and for those with control of media enterprises to have a genuine commitment to broadcasting standards objectives.
On 16 March 2017, the Secretary of State issued a European Intervention Notice on the grounds of media plurality and commitment to broadcasting standards. This decision was made after hearing representations from Sky, 21st Century Fox and many other third parties.
This decision will now trigger action by Ofcom to assess and report on the public interest grounds specified and for the Competition and Markets Authority to report on jurisdiction. They each have 40 working days to prepare and provide these reports, which means they will be sent to the Secretary of State by Tuesday 16 May. At that point, the Secretary of State will resume her decision-making role.
The question of whether someone is fit and proper to hold a broadcasting licence is a different consideration to those outlined in the Enterprise Act 2002, and one that quite rightly sits with Ofcom. Ofcom had previously announced that it would conduct its fit and proper assessment at the same time it would consider any public interest test, meaning following the intervention decision, Ofcom will conduct its assessment within the 40 working days it has to report on the specified public interests
With regards to your invitation to meet with you, I am afraid I already had parliamentary commitments at that time.
Sale and Breeding of Pets
Everyone who owns or is looking for a pet will want to know it has had the very best start to life. I entirely share your concern that for thousands of animals born each year to irresponsible breeders, their first weeks can be spent in cramped and squalid conditions without the care and attention they need.
I am therefore glad to say that the Government is cracking down on the worst offenders by strengthening the licensing system and giving councils the power they need to take action.
These plans will ban sales of puppies or kittens at too young an age, which in both cases will be less than eight weeks. It will also require anyone breeding and selling three or more litters of puppies a year to apply for a formal licence. Irresponsible breeders who break these rules face an unlimited fine and/or up to six months in prison.
They will introduce a single 'animal activities licence' covering pet shops, boarding houses and riding stables, to improve the process and make enforcement easier. Pet shops will also need to give customers written information about the animals they buy, with details of the five welfare needs owners must meet around environment, diet, behaviour, housing and freedom from pain. This is particularly important when buying exotic pets, which can have very specific needs.
With more and more pet sales now taking place on the internet, this market should be subject to the same strict licensing criteria as other breeders and pet shops. Anyone trading commercially in pets online will need to be properly licensed, to help make reputable sellers easily accessible to prospective buyers.
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 appropriate, 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. Work across Government is underway to explore whether there is more that the law should do to offer the most appropriate protections to police animals and all working animals.
Arm sales to Saudi Arabia
I am reassured that the Government takes seriously its legal obligations as regards the licensing of arms for export to Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. The United Kingdom has one of the most rigorous licensing regimes in the world.
Each application is considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated European Union and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, taking into account the precise nature of the equipment and the identity and track record of the recipient. The Government has consistently said it does not, and will not, issue licences where it judges that the proposed export would provoke or prolong internal conflicts, or where there is a clear risk it might be used to facilitate internal repression or be used aggressively against another country. I have always fully supported this stance.
Saudi Arabia has publicly stated that it is investigating reports of alleged violations of International Humanitarian Law. This is an important process and the United Kingdom is fully behind thorough investigations into all allegations of violations of International Law. Finding a political solution to the conflict in Yemen is the best way to bring long-term stability and peace talks are a top priority.
The Government continues to monitor the situation closely, using cross-Departmental resources to seek further information. Additionally, the Government continues to welcome any further information non-governmental Organisations can provide.
Assistance Dogs and Taxis
I know that taxis and private hire vehicles are essential for many disabled people, and drivers are required to make reasonable adjustments for disabled passengers. The Equality Act 2010 places duties on taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to carry assistance dogs at no additional charge. The Department for Transport has issued guidance to the licensed trade on the provisions in the Equality Act that require taxis and private hire vehicles to carry guide and other assistance dogs.
Failure to comply with this requirement can result in prosecution and a fine on conviction of up to £1,000. A driver was recently fined £1,546, including legal costs, for refusing access to a guide dog. I think this sends a strong message right across the industry, and I hope my ministerial colleagues will draw it to the attention of licensing authorities.
Although there is no legal requirement for taxi and private hire vehicle drivers to undertake disability awareness training, the Department for Transport's Best Practice Guidance on taxi and private hire vehicle licensing recommends that local licensing authorities to work with the industry in their area to improve drivers' awareness of the needs of disabled people. This includes encouraging their drivers to undertake disability awareness training.
Early screening for Bowl Cancer
I appreciate your concerns as I know that bowel cancer is one of the most common types of cancer diagnosed in the United Kingdom. Over eight in ten cases of bowel cancer occur in the over 60s and I agree that early diagnosis is key.
Under the National Health Service Bowel Cancer Screening Programme in England, people aged 60-74 years old are sent a home testing kit every two years. Those aged above the eligible age limit are also able to self-refer for screening. As part of the Programme, a new test is being introduced which is easier to complete and it is hoped that 200,000 more people per year will take up the opportunity to be screened. An additional one-off bowel scope screening test is also being introduced for those aged 55 years old.
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 in hospital if they present with relevant symptoms at relevant ages.
Cancer survival rates in the United Kingdom have never been higher, however, I am aware that there is still more to be done. The Government is working with the NHS, charities and patient groups to deliver the new cancer strategy developed by the independent Cancer Taskforce. By 2020, everyone urgently referred with a suspicion of cancer will receive either a definitive diagnosis or the all-clear within four weeks.
The £1.2 billion Cancer Drugs Fund has helped over 95,000 people and I continue to support the Government's commitment to increase National Health Service spending in England by £10 billion in real terms by 2020/21.
First, let me say that I fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue, evidenced by the number of signatures to the petition on the Parliament website and the volume of correspondence I have received. I was pleased to hear that a debate in Parliament has now been scheduled on 20 February on this issue.
Thank you for contacting me about a state visit to the UK by President Trump.
First, let me say that I fully appreciate the strength of feeling on this issue, evidenced by the number of signatures to the petition on the Parliament website and the volume of correspondence I have received. I was pleased to hear that a debate in Parliament has now been scheduled on 20 February on this issue.
[OPTIONAL PARAGRAPH - addressing concerns about Donald Trump's attitude towards women: I know the Prime Minister is mindful of some of the comments that Donald Trump has made about women in the past and she has rightly said that some of these comments are unacceptable. Donald Trump has apologised for some of those comments.]
[OPTIONAL PARAGRAPH: - addressing concerns about recent changes to US immigration policy: I also agree with the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary who have made it clear that the recent changes to US immigration policy are not measures that the British Government would consider. It is a highly controversial and divisive policy and it is wrong to stigmatise people on the basis of their nationality.]
Of course, this country's alliance with the United States is vitally important. On defence, intelligence and security, we work more closely together than any other two countries in the world.
It is therefore my view that it is right that the incoming President of our closest and most important ally should be accorded the honour of a state visit just like other Presidents before him. The Government supports this approach and the invitation has been extended by Her Majesty the Queen, quite properly. It is right that the visit should go ahead.
The full cost of Inward State Visits is shared between a number of Government Departments. The costs of State Visits borne by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are published on the GOV. UK website, here - https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/costs-relating-to-state-and-guest-of-government-visits.
It is very important to say, however, that where we have differences with the US, we should not hesitate to express them, and I am pleased that so many members of Parliament were in the House of Commons to express their views during the extensive debate on the changes to US immigration policy on 30 January.
Homeless Reduction Bill
I wish to congratulate my Conservative colleague, Bob Blackman, with the support of the Government, in bringing this Bill to Parliament. The Bill will provide significant support to those who are about to or have already been made homeless.
As you may be aware, 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.
Every homeless case is a tragedy and I am glad that the Government is protecting homelessness prevention funding for councils. Central funding to tackle homelessness is also being increased to £139 million and this will include targeted funding for rough sleeping. I should also mention that statutory homelessness is now 57 per cent below its peak in 2003-04 under the previous Labour Government.
I believe that the proposed Bill would be an unnecessary upheaval and the wrong approach to improving the National Health Service. You may be interested to know that an authoritative comparative study of the performance of different national health systems recently concluded that the National Health Service is the best health service in the world.
This is a ringing endorsement of the Government's decision to modernise the National Health Service, ensuring more money was spent on patient care not administration, and to invest over £7 billion extra funding in real terms in the health service during the last Parliament. There are now 1.3 million more operations being delivered each year compared to 2010, 10,700 more doctors and almost 11,800 more nurses. I am also proud that the Prime Minister has promised to increase investment in this Parliament with over £10 billion of additional National Health Service spending in real terms per annum by 2020/21. This will mean spending on the National Health Service will rise in every year in real-terms.
In my view, giving operational control for the day-to-day running of services to doctors was the right decision as they have the best understanding of their patients and local needs. Nonetheless the Government has always been clear that Ministers are responsible for the National Health Service, and I am proud of its performance in challenging circumstances.
Employment Support Allowance
In the Summer Budget 2015, the Chancellor announced that, from April 2017, new Employment and Support Allowance claimants who are placed in the work-related activity group will receive the same rate of benefit as those claiming Jobseeker's Allowance. This change only affects new claims made after that date and there will be no cash losers among those who are already in receipt of Employment and Support Allowance.
The record employment levels and strong jobs growth in recent years have benefitted many, but these benefits have yet to reach those on Employment and Support Allowance. While 1 in 5 Jobseekers Allowance claimants move off benefit every month, this is true of just 1 in 100 of Employment and Support Allowance Work Related Activity Group claimants. Those with health conditions and disabilities deserve better than this.
It is important to tackle this as, in addition to providing financial security for individuals, there are economic, social and moral arguments that, for those who are able to, work is the most effective way to improve the well-being of individuals, their families and their communities.
Those in the Work Related Activity Group currently receive additional cash payments but little employment support. As the Prime Minister has recently stated, this fixation on welfare treats the symptoms, not the causes of poverty; and, over time, it traps people in dependency as, in the current system, the additional cash payment acts as a disincentive to moving into employment. That is why the Government are proposing to recycle some of the money currently spent on cash payments, which are not actually achieving the desired effect of helping people move closer to the labour market, into practical support that will make a genuine difference to individual's life chances.
This new funding will be worth £60 million in 2017/18 rising to £100 million in 2020/21. It will support those with limited capability for work to take steps to move closer to the labour market, and when they are able, back to work. This additional practical support is part of a real terms increase that was announced at the Autumn Statement. How the support will be spent is going to be influenced by a Taskforce of representatives from disability charities, disabled people's user-led organisations, employers, think tanks, provider representatives and local authorities.
It is important to improve what is on offer for these individuals because we know that most people with disabilities and health conditions want to work, including 61 per cent of the Work Related Activity Group, and there is a large body of evidence showing that work is generally good for physical and mental wellbeing.
Freedom of Information
Let me first say that I fully support freedom of information, as does the Government, but after more than a decade in operation it is time that the process is reviewed.
I know that the Government's aim is to be as open and transparent as possible on the substance of information, consistent with ensuring that a private space is protected for frank advice. To that end, I think the Government must maintain the best environment for policy-makers to think freely and offer frank advice to decision-makers. The most effective system is when policy makers can freely give advice, while citizens can shine a light into government.
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 will consider whether there is an appropriate public interest balance between transparency, accountability and the need for sensitive information to have robust protection, and whether the operation of the Act adequately recognises the need for a private space for policy development, implementation and frank advice. The Commission received over 30,000 submissions and has decided to hold two oral evidence sessions in January 2016. The Commission will now report as soon as possible after these sessions. I look forward to the Commission's conclusion and the Government's response in due course.
I am encouraged that my colleagues in Government are strengthening accountability and making public services work better for people. You may also be interested to know that the World Wide Web Foundation's Open Data Barometer and Open Knowledge's Global Open Data Index ranked the United Kingdom as the world's leading country on open government.
I believe the BBC is one of the nation's most important institutions which is recognised internationally as a maker of quality content. Ten years ago, the last time the Government ran a Charter Review, the media landscape looked very different. The BBC has adapted to this changing landscape, and remains loved by audiences.
However, we need to ask some hard questions during this Charter Review. This should include questions about what the BBC should be trying to achieve in an age where consumer choice is now far more extensive than it has been, what its scale and scope should be in the light of those aims, how far it affects others in television, radio and online, and what the right structures are for its governance and regulation. Today, for example, 62 per cent of all programmes accessed online are watched using the BBC's iPlayer, a significant change from a decade ago.
The BBC is a national institution, paid for by the public. It will have spent more than £30 billion of public money over the current Charter period. The Government recently set out a consultation which marks the start of the Charter Review process and I firmly believe that everyone must be able to have their say on how well they think that money is spent. That is why I am pleased 190,000 responses were received to the consultation, which has now closed, and I look forward to the Government's response. I join the Government in its wish to stimulate a national debate over the coming months as we map out the future for our BBC.
I was unable to attend the debate on 10th December 2015 regarding the US-EU Free trade agreement due to other parliamentary obligations. However, I realise some peoples concerns and would like to clarify a few things as this agreement does not carry the risks that some have put forward.
Underlying the agreement is the opportunity to add £10 billion to our economy every year, which is almost £400 per household, which means more jobs, more choice and reduced prices.
United Kingdom governments alone decide how public services, including the National Health Service are run. This agreement does not change this and does not change United Kingdom laws or lower consumer, labour or environmental standards. This agreement is about helping our consumers and our businesses access new markets. Where mutually high standards can be recognised with the United States they will be, but where this is not possible United States businesses will have to raise their standards to meet ours, not the other way around.
There have been claims that investors could sue a government for losses and win if a government takes a decision in the wider public interest, whether on health, the environment or consumer safety. However, this could not happen. It is important that businesses investing abroad are protected from discrimination and unfair treatment, but there is nothing to allow companies to undermine public policymaking. Extensive consultation has taken place and all provisions are being looked at carefully.
More documents relating to negotiations will be made available to MPs as the process continues and a wealth of material has been published on the European Commission's website. Parliament has also had a number of opportunities to debate this agreement, will scrutinise the final agreement and ultimately has the final veto power.
The draft Investigatory Powers Bill, which will be subject to scrutiny by a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament, will be a landmark piece of legislation which will ensure that law enforcement and security agencies have the powers they need to keep us safe, while at the same time providing world-leading oversight arrangements.
This Bill varies widely from the draft Communications data Bill published in 2012. The Government is no longer asking internet service providers to retain communications data about the use of overseas services. Nor will the Bill contain any provision to enforce data retention obligations against foreign telecommunications companies.
The draft Bill includes provisions on each of the key capabilities available to the intelligence agencies and others: communications data, interception, and equipment interference. It provides for the retention of internet connection records - although access to the data will be tightly controlled. It is important to make clear that an internet connection records is a record of the communications services a person or device has connected to. It is the internet equivalent of a phone bill - it is not a person's full internet browsing history.
Law enforcement access to the information would be on a case-by-case basis, where it is necessary and proportionate, limited to three rigidly defined purposes. These are to identify what device had sent an online communication, establish what online communications services a known individual had accessed or identify whether a known individual had accessed illegal services online.
I do appreciate your concern on this vital area of national security, but let me assure you that there have been three independent reviews on investigatory powers - by David Anderson, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, and the Royal United Services Institute - and all agreed that the agencies should have the power to acquire and use data in bulk. This draft Bill sets out, in clear detail, existing powers for the security and intelligence agencies to do this, whilst subjecting them to stricter safeguards.
Similarly I am particularly glad that on the question of who, in future, should authorise interception warrants, the Home Secretary has announced that there will be a 'double-lock' authorisation process. This will mean that warrants for the most intrusive powers available to the agencies, such as the interception of communications, will be subject to a 'double-lock', requiring approval by a judge as well as by the Secretary of State.
Junior Doctor contracts
I know that junior doctors already work seven days a week and play a vital role in our National Health Service. I am aware that the Government has the utmost respect for the outstanding contribution made by this pivotal part of the National Health Service workforce.
Reform of the junior doctors' contract is vital for improving patient safety, properly rewarding National Health Service staff, ensuring safer working hours and delivering a 7-day National Health Service. I hope the British Medical Association will return to the negotiating table.
This is absolutely not a cost-cutting exercise for the Government and these changes will be cost neutral. The average pay of a junior doctor will not be cut and it is totally irresponsible of the British Medical Association to claim otherwise.
The Health Secretary has given an absolute guarantee that this new contract will not impose longer hours for junior doctors. The current contract incentivises long, unsafe hours. Under the new proposals, no junior doctor working full time will be expected to work on average more than 48 hours a week and there will be new limits on the number of nights and long shifts worked, as well as an absolute limit on how many hours are worked in any single week.
The proposed contract will involve some increase in plain time working and a replacement of the banding system, with additional pay for unsocial hours. Nights and Sundays will continue to attract unsocial hours' payments. I am encouraged that the Health Secretary is prepared to negotiate how far plain time working extends on Saturdays.
The Government also plans to end the unfairness in pay progression by linking increases to achievement, not time served. Success will be properly rewarded as pay rises will be properly linked to progression through the training grades and levels of responsibility. At the same time, doctors that take time out of training will continue to be entitled to twelve months maternity leave and the existing maternity payments.
Please be assured that the Government has given an absolute guarantee that the average pay for junior doctors will not reduce. I welcome plans set out in the Health Secretary’s firm offer, which will result in junior doctors receiving an approximate 11% increase to basic pay. A newly qualified junior doctor will expect to start on a basic salary of £25,500, compared to £22,636 in the current contract. As doctors advance through the stages of training and take on increased responsibility they will be rewarded through 5 pay progression points, reaching £55,000 in the final stage of training, compared to £47,175 in the current contract.
To view details of the Government's firm offer to junior doctors, please follow the below link:
I hope this makes clear that the Government wishes to negotiate with junior doctors in order to develop a new contract that is better for both doctors and patients.
Organ Harvesting in China
I can assure you that the Government has expressed concern about the poor treatment of prisoners in China, including Falun Gong practitioners. It is unacceptable that the Falun Gong community continues to be subject to repression throughout China, with reports of its practitioners being prosecuted for "illegal cult activities".
Criminal justice reform and the rule of law, including torture prevention and the treatment of detainees, has been a consistent focus of the Government's human rights engagement with the Chinese authorities both at ministerial level and through project work on the ground. This includes through the United Kingdom-China Human Rights Dialogue that takes place annually.
I would also highlight that the Government continues to raise concerns about the issue of forced organ harvesting in China. Organs removed from executed prisoners are used for human transplantation purposes in China, but Chinese law requires that prisoners give prior consent that their organs be used in that way.
I was interested to discover that the Chinese Government has taken welcome steps towards regulating the use of donated organs, moving it closer to international standards. I fully support these efforts to tackle this serious issue and I am pleased that the United Kingdom will continue to encourage China to make further progress, including by committing to share best practice.