Thursday, 24 September 2015

Reforming Welfare

Reforming the welfare system and supporting people back into work go hand in hand.  For too long, too many people were left languishing on benefits and trapped in a life of poverty.  Helping them go back to work has been one of the primary objectives of the Government in recent years and the results are starting to show. 

I have always kept in close contact with the local Job Centre and other providers delivering the Government's Work Programme and visited both again in recent weeks. Unemployment has tumbled by almost half over the last year or so, and the job market is stronger now than it has been for over a decade.

One of the most powerful schemes in recent years has been the policy of creating work experience opportunities for young people. The most important step to getting a full time job for school leavers is gaining experience. Lots of local employers have done their bit by offering unpaid work experience to school leavers and I have seen numerous cases where, after that short trial period, employers are so impressed by the young people joining their team that they move things around to try to find them a permanent place.

Another change now being rolled out is the introduction of the Universal Credit to replace other out of work benefits and Housing Benefit. Previously, many believed that they were better off on the dole. If a job didn’t work out it was difficult to get back on benefits support. If income went over a certain threshold, people lost all Housing Benefit or tax credits resulting in employees being unable to work more than sixteen hours per week for fear of being worse off. That is about to change.  Under the new system there will be tapered support so that there is a single benefit payment which is withdrawn gradually as income rises.  It will always pay to work more hours but if something goes wrong, the support will kick back in automatically.

These changes are never straightforward but they will transform the lives of those who are on the bottom rung of the ladder. 

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Assisted Dying

Parliament can be at its best on a "free vote" where the political parties step aside and where each individual MP tries to reach their own conclusion on difficult and complex issues of conscience.  Last Friday, we all debated one of the most difficult issues of all: the Assisted Dying Bill.

None of us finds it easy to contemplate death. In recent years there have been some heart wrenching cases of individuals who had severe terminal illnesses and who wanted to bring their own life to an end early, on their own terms with medical assistance.  Some of these have ended up in high profile cases before the courts.  In the last few years I have become more sympathetic to some sort of change in the law that would allow professional assistance to be given to those who genuinely want it and had therefore been minded to support the Bill.

However, as always in such areas, the difficulties start once you get into the detail and try to work out how to put such an option into the lawyerly clauses of a written statute.  A week before the debate as part as my preparation, I read the whole Bill from cover to cover and that is when doubt started to set in.  Of particular concern for me were the nature of the "safeguards" and the impacts that creating such an option would have for relationships within families.  It started with the mere description of how a doctor would prepare and then place the drinkable "medicine" beside the patient and then retreat to a neighbouring room to observe from a distance.  There would need to be a signed declaration from two doctors that the persons' condition meant they had less than six months to live. Doctors say it is very difficult on most conditions to make such a judgement on an arbitrary time limit.  It would also not have helped some of the difficult cases which have ended up before the courts and have prompted debate in recent years such as the former rugby player who was severely paralysed.

There would then need to be a High Court Judge to decide whether or not the individual had genuinely wanted to exercise the choice to have assisted dying or whether they had felt under pressure to do it.  But how can a judge really know when you have such complex relationships between an individual and those nearest and dearest to them? Someone might feel very uneasy about ending their own life but could equally feel that they were a burden on their children or feel that they would not want their children to see their condition deteriorate. Their children would most likely feel precisely the opposite and would want their loved ones to know that they would always be there for them. But they would equally fear that they might be being selfish by standing in the way of a loved ones' wishes. The problem is compounded by the fact that people with such terminal illnesses sometimes suffer depression which is understandable. This came up in the debate and the solution put forward by proponents is that, in such cases, doctors would refer the individual for psychiatric assessment before signing off the procedure. But what's that about?  You have to go and pretend to be happy for the psychiatrist before you are allowed to opt to end your own life?

For every case where this gives people the option they want, I feared there would be many, many more where the weight of having to consider whether to actually take such an option would add another intolerable dilemma to people suffering terminal illnesses.  That is why, in the end, I voted against the Bill. However, I remain sympathetic to some other change.  As I listened to the debate I could see an alternative way.  Legal guidance has already been altered in recent years so that there are no prosecutions brought in cases where a family member acted compassionately to assist a loved one in their wishes.  We could, in my view, move that guidance further.  It might also be that people should be able to opt in advance for a palliative care pathway that deliberately seeks to expedite an end rather than try to delay the end.  That would go some way to dealing with these difficult choices without bringing all the new dilemmas inherent in the Assisted Dying Bill.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Syrian Refugee Crisis

Over the last week the Syrian refugee crisis finally broke into the public consciousness with the heart wrenching picture of a Syrian toddler who drowned with his brother and mother while their family was attempting to make it to Greece.  The Syrian civil war has been running for several years and some four million people have fled the country with many desperate families putting their trust in people-traffickers and trying cross the Mediterranean in overloaded and dangerous boats.

I have received a great deal of correspondence from constituents on the matter. I think there are three things we need to do.  Firstly we need to offer sanctuary to those refugees in immediate need of asylum, but to do so in a way that does not encourage more families to risk their lives. That is why David Cameron was right to say that we will offer sanctuary to thousands more refugees, but take them from refugee camps in Syria and the surrounding states so that we don't encourage people to put their lives at risk trying to enter Europe illegally. 

Secondly, this is a moment when our aid budget can really come into its own.  Britain is already the second largest donor of funds to alleviate the refugee crisis in Syria and we can direct more funds to help support those neighbouring states provide refugees with shelter, food and medical treatment.  

Finally, in the longer term, the problem will only be solved once the civil war ends. I voted in favour of air strikes in Syria in 2013 because I think, had we intervened early, we could have brought the conflict to an earlier close with a moderate group forming a new government.  Haunted by memories of Iraq and Afghanistan, parliament hesitated.  A year later, in a separate vote, parliament limited the authorisation for targeted RAF bombing against ISIS extremists to Iraq only, not Syria.  While we should use force with caution,  there are definitely times when military intervention is the right thing to do and the best way to help vulnerable people suffering the consequences of an enduring civil war.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Improving Opportunities for the Next Generation

I have always thought the best way to promote social mobility is to make sure every child has access to a good education tailored to that child’s individual needs. We have some brilliant schools in Camborne, Redruth & Hayle and the A Level and GCSE results which came out last month show that they are going from strength to strength.

We also have some brilliant extra-curricular projects in the constituency which take place over the summer and are aimed at teaching young people life-skills and helping them to build their confidence. For eleven year olds about to start secondary school, Hayle School participates in CampFirst which runs a two week summer camp, allowing participants to get to know their future classmates before the start of term, while the Get On Track Project, run by the Dame Kelly Holmes Trust deploys retired Olympians to help mentor and inspire young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and uses sport to teach life skills such as team work and problem solving.

We cannot forget however, that the first three years of a child's life are the most formative and have a crucial impact on a child's life chances.  Many primary school head teachers tell me they have noticed a growing trend in the last twenty years of children arriving in reception class with language difficulties and, however much effort those schools put in, those children start at a disadvantage. 

The other week I visited the Gooseberry Bush Nursery at Rosmellin. Run by Gill Smith, the Gooseberry Bush stresses the importance of play based learning in developing basic communication skills so children can build relationships with one another.  The government has been increasing free nursery care for two and three year olds and the Gooseberry Bush have been piloting a new programme of early intervention based on rediscovering the importance of traditional play.  They are getting some really positive early results which proves that, in those first few years, it’s not about forcing academic learning ever younger but instead just about encouraging child's play.

Digital Skills and Connectivity

One of the ways we can raise wages and incomes in the area is by promoting more apprenticeships and locally Cornwall College which I attende...