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!
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.