Today I spoke in the debate on the Fire Safety Bill in support of the McPartland Smith Amendment to which I was an early signatory. This amendment was designed to protect leaseholders from unfair costs of rectifying the issue of unsafe insulation within their buildings. Unfortunately this amendment was not accepted and we didn’t have the opportunity to vote upon it. However the Minister did seem to be open to compromise though which was welcome.
I have previously welcomed the support that Robert Jenrick, the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government announced. The £3.5 billion fund to remove unsafe cladding from buildings over 18m will benefit many of my constituents. This is on top of the already existing £1.6 billion Fire Safety Fund. My first surgery appointment after my election involved me meeting with St Francis Tower leaseholders and I’m glad that since that meeting there has been progress and they no longer have uncertainty hanging over them.
But I made it clear again today that, while this is a good start, this support doesn’t touch a number of my constituents affected by unsafe insulation. Many of those in Ipswich who have come to me since my election still have this uncertainty hanging over their lives which is unacceptable.
The Minister stated that the Building Safety Bill that will be brought forward shortly will be an opportunity for Government legislation to pick up on the issues raised by the amendment that I signed. I plan to work closely with Government to try and make sure this is the case.
I made a promise to my constituents that I would leave no leaseholder behind, yet sadly there are still a significant number of leaseholders who do feel left behind and this needs to be addressed. I’ve worked closely with Minister’s over the past couple of days to try and secure the assurances I need on behalf of my constituents but we’re not currently where we need to be which is why I was prepared to vote for the amendment today.
As you will have noticed I’ve been carrying out a number of surveys over the past month or so and I wanted to share the results of the latest survey. Like the last survey around 1,000 Ipswich residents took part and though I would hardly describe the survey as scientific, its still useful to get a bit of a snapshot of what my constituents are thinking regarding some of the key issues of the day. I shared the survey on my social media platforms and promoted to all those living in the Town and encouraged them to take part.
Here are the results:
- Do you agree with the Prime Minister’s plan to start the phased reopening of schools on 8th March?
- No, 8th March is too early to start reopening: 42%
- Yes, I agree with the plan: 48%
- Schools should reopen now: 10%
- Should all teaching staff be prioritised for the vaccine?
- Yes: 77%
- No: 23%
- Do you believe that any other key workers should be prioritised for the vaccine?
- All key workers should be: 70%
- Police: 17%
- Retail workers: 3%
- Do you believe University students should have to pay full tuition fees for the academic year 2020-2021?
- Partial refund: 70%
- Full refund: 21%
- Full fees: 9%
- Have you been satisfied with the vaccine roll out?
- Yes: 77%
- No: 12%
- Don’t know: 11%
- Do you believe that the temporary increase in Universal Credit should be extended beyond March?
- It should be extended for as long as the pandemic goes on for: 57%
- The increase should be made permanent: 21%
- No: 22%
I have to say that mostly these results correspond with my position on the key issues. I support the temporary extension of the Universal Credit increase beyond March but I’m wary about making it permanent. It’s clear at the moment many people are having to turn to the welfare state often for the first time in their lives due to the economic disruption caused by the pandemic and the support should be there for them. I also know that the effects of this pandemic will extend even beyond the current lockdowns and so I believe that adequate support should exist to keep everyone on their feet until the economy has fully recovered. However I also think that it would be wrong to commit to making the uplift permanent at this stage when we are still assessing what the impact of the pandemic will be on our public finances in the medium to long term.
I have to say, I also largely agree with the majority on the plan to reopen schools. Most people believe that schools should reopen on the 8th March. Any later than that, and I fear that our children will fall too far behind. Especially those with special educational needs who need in-person learning. Not only am I concerned for pupil’s level of attainment, but also their mental health. We need to get students back to school as soon as it is safe to do so.
The fact of the matter is that if all key workers are prioritised, I do fear that we would end up taking away vaccines from those most vulnerable to the virus, due to the sheer number of key workers that there are across the country. It is for this reason that I think we should keep the exception only for teachers. The huge societal importance of getting our schools fully open again asap as well as the exposure of teaching staff to the virus mean that there is a special case prioritisation, in my view.
In terms of university tuition fees, I have made the point before that I really do think students should not be paying full fees while they are unable to use the facilities and do not have access to the full university education that they would otherwise have had outside this pandemic. It is not fair on them at all. I am glad to see that the overwhelming majority of respondents agreed with this position.
Finally, I’m not surprised that the overwhelming majority of participants in the survey have been impressed with the vaccine roll out. Huge thank you to all those NHS workers and volunteers who have made this possible at the local level. We will never forget.
For my column this month, I wanted to take a look at how well Ipswich compares to other similar towns in terms of Government funding. I also wanted to compare our rates of council tax and how it is spent.
It is vital that our town receives a fair funding deal over the course of this pandemic and as such I have been receiving data from the House of Commons Library to keep an eye on the situation.
In general terms over the course of the last ten years I am happy to report that Ipswich Borough Council has been receiving funding from the Government in line with the amount that is spent on other councils of a similar size and type across the country. To confirm this, I looked at the data from five local authorities which are most similar to Ipswich. These are Gloucester, Lincoln, Chesterfield, Nuneaton and Bedworth, and Scarborough.
All of these are lower tier Borough Councils within rural counties. They are all also Large Town local authorities with similar levels of deprivation to Ipswich. Encouraging data on the amount of additional funding provided by the Government over the course of this year tells a similar story. Millions of pounds of extra funding has been provided to Ipswich Borough Council by the Government to ensure that our local businesses and public services are able to cope during this pandemic.
I think the numbers are interesting. Over the course of this pandemic Ipswich Borough Council has been given, at the very least, £33,569,871 in additional funding from the Government. This figure is drawn from the four tranches of the Emergency funding allocation; the Next Steps Accommodation Programme; the Reopening High Streets grant fund; Small business Grant Fund; and the Council Tax Hardship Fund. The figure also includes the £1,244,250 which was given to Ipswich Borough Council as part of the Local Authority Discretionary grant fund which they have been using to provide further support in cases where there is an extra need.
The largest portion of this support comes from the Small Business Grant Fund which has been used to keep our retail and hospitality businesses afloat with over £26 million. This is Government money that is specifically designed to support our hospitality sector and we are glad that this has allowed Ipswich Borough Council to set up a scheme to support our brilliant pubs and restaurants. I have said before on a number of occasions, that having spoken to the hospitality industry in Ipswich, I would like to see this funding increase and I am hoping for the extension of business rates holidays and tax holidays well into the future.
It is important to remember as well that this figure does not reflect the total amount of additional funding that has gone to Ipswich over this pandemic. Government money also finds its way into our town via Suffolk County Council to support local improvements, but here we have a good depiction of the direct funding which comes straight from the Government to people and businesses in Ipswich. The £2 million support from the Covid Winter Grant Scheme has targeted those most in need and continues to make a real difference across Suffolk.
At the end of February, the Labour Party brought an Opposition Day motion in Parliament on the issue of council tax. What they termed ‘The Prime Minister’s Council Tax hike’ was a reference to the decision announced as part of the offer to give councils the ability to increase council tax by 2% (with an additional 3% social care precept) if they chose to. They don’t have to and have the flexibility to defer this increase for a year.
The Labour Party’s position in the debate was yet another contradiction, given that their leadership in local government, including the Mayor of London, are calling for higher rises, and “Captain Hindsight” Keir Starmer has previously called for the introduction of new local taxes. The ten local authorities with the worst council tax collection rates according the data we have from 2019-20 are all Labour-run. These were Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Salford, Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield, Preston, Nottingham, Tameside and Kingston upon Hull.
Not only this, but Labour councils across the country have spent irresponsibly with countless and needless steps into the world of commercial property investing. The worst culprits for this are Nottingham and Croydon which has officially declared itself bankrupt. Yet in London, Sadiq Khan has still found the money to increase his PR budget to £13 million whilst also raising his share of Council Tax by 10%.
It is no surprise then that many have questioned why Ipswich Borough Council are spending £22.5 million on office blocks in Peterborough. This being spent during the pandemic, when working from home has opened up a whole new debate on ways of working, would appear to make this a questionable investment. It might be different if this money was actually invested within Ipswich, supporting a worthwhile project that could be a significant benefit to the town but this obviously isn’t. Even if things go well, it is anticipated that it will take 10 years of office rents for Ipswich to make its money back. I continue to hope that our labour run Borough Council focusses its attention less on risky business ventures outside of our town and more on spending money on local initiatives.
I continue to lobby the Government at every available opportunity to make sure that Ipswich is not left behind with Government funding and their levelling up agenda. On the whole I am happy to see a Conservative Government back local businesses with emergency funds during the pandemic, supporting those that need it most. I want to see this continue and to go deeper so that nobody is left behind and every Ipswich business has the opportunity to emerge from this pandemic. It is clear that across the country when it comes to keeping Council Tax low, not wasting taxpayers money or exposing them to risky investments, it is Conservative councils that can be trusted.
GROOMING GANGS DEBATE: The appalling crimes committed by those involved in grooming gangs have destroyed the lives of thousands of young predominantly white working-class girls and if the lessons are to be learnt to avoid further pain and suffering then the facts need to be fully established and cultural sensitivities and political correctness cannot be allowed to get in the way of this.
Yesterday I led the Grooming Gangs debate in the House of Commons Chamber following two petitions signed by hundreds of thousands of people calling for the issue to be debated.
Ahead of the debate I touched base with the petition creator and some of the victims of this appalling crime. It’s clear that many of the victims believe that they were targeted specifically because of their ethnic background.
A report was published last December into this issue however it was limited in the conclusions it drew and doesn’t really us to get to the bottom of the issue. I therefore welcomed the Minister’s promise that more work will be done and that going forward data relating to the ethnic background of all those found guilty of child sex exploitation (CSE) will be collected. I’m at a loss as to why this wasn’t the case in the past and the lack of such data has made it very hard to drawn clear conclusions and therefore to robustly tackle this issue. Fully understanding whether there are cultural reasons and explanations for the widespread nature of this appalling crime in certain parts of the country, and particularly in Towns such as Rotherham and Rochdale, is clearly incredibly important.
The victims have too often been let down by the establishment. Both at local and national level. Too often those with knowledge have been too scared of speaking out for fear of being branded a racist. This must not be allowed to happen going forward. Clearly it is totally wrong for different communities to be stigmatised and we must always guard against racism, but we cannot sweep difficult issues under the carpet. This doesn’t help the situation and in the long run it can make community relations even more difficult.
If it is the case that certain crimes are disproportionately committed by members from within certain communities, we need to be open and honest about it, simply sweeping it under the carpet and refusing to confront the hard truths won’t help the situation. In my view that really needs to be one of the key lessons.