Figures published last week showed that unemployment continues to fall, both across the country and here in the High Peak. Locally there was a 20% fall in the last year, and a 63% fall in the last 5 years. These figures show that nationally, the employment rate is at a record high and unemployment is at its lowest rate for almost a decade. There are more women in work than ever before and over 130,000 more young people in work than a year ago. Interestingly, full-time employees make up the majority of the increase in employment in the last year.

Away from the statistics, I have been asked by people recently what my role and influence is as Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for International Development. I was given this role after the Election and since then it has given me a greater insight into the whole issue of our International Aid budget, which I know is something that concerns people. Given the fact that money is short at home, the case is often made to me that we should reduce the International Aid budget to compensate. This is something that we can’t do as under the last Government we legislated for 0.7% of Gross National Income to be committed to International Aid, however I do understand peoples’ concerns. There are occasional stories that appear in the press about some of the projects that this money funds which also raises questions and I am always concerned that it is properly spent. Not all the International Aid is allocated by the Department for International Development (DfID), some is distributed by the Foreign Office and other departments, however the value for money on this expenditure is crucial and DfID is the most scrutinised department over its spending but it is and remains a huge priority.

The 2015 Spending Review was used to fundamentally review how the money was spent. It needed to change to command public confidence and support. This restructuring means that it now focuses on the root causes of mass migration and disease, the threat of terrorism and global climate change – all of which directly threaten British interests. So our International Aid is now also very much in our own national interest, as well as helping some of the world’s poorest people.

At the last Election the Conservative manifesto pledged to address the issue of Scottish MPs voting on laws that only affected people who live in England. This was something that many people had raised and expressed concerns over. Last week saw the new legislation to address this problem used for the first time. It was a historic moment in Parliament with the changes to Parliamentary procedure being enacted. The Housing and Planning Bill, which affects only England, had to pass through what is termed a Grand Committee, which is made up of only English MPs, before it could go to Third Reading. These seem like fairly dry procedural matters but it is a fundamental change in our democratic system. When the Scottish Parliament came into being it left this anomaly over Scottish MPs voting for English laws. Under the English Votes for English Laws legislation this has now been addressed.

Much has been said about the strike action last week by junior doctors. I regret that they found it necessary to take such action. It is disappointing that there seems to be a misapprehension over what the Government are trying to do. The contract prioritises patient safety and offer junior doctors safer working hours. The maximum working week will be cut from 91 hours to 72 hours with a new maximum shift pattern of four nights shifts or five days shifts compared to the current contract which permits seven consecutive night shifts or 12 consecutive day shifts. The basic pay for junior doctors will improve by 11% and a reduction in the Saturday working rates will be offset by the increase in basic pay. There will be changes to what is regarded as unsociable hours. The world, however, is changing. As people in many other professions work longer, with many more working on weekends, it is not unreasonable to ask that doctors extend their standard working days to cover Saturdays. Like all public services there is a need to adapt to the changing needs of the public to continue to offer that service tailored to the modern world and working practices. This contract seeks to do that.

The Government have said that they still wish to resolve the matter with the BMA through talks, not strikes, so that everyone can work together to improve weekend care and deliver a seven day a week service.

As this is the first column of 2016, I would like to take the opportunity of wishing all readers a Happy New Year. I am sure that 2016 will bring challenges and issues - as does every year. Some we will be expecting, some we won’t, but I hope that it proves a good and prosperous one for everyone.

There were further developments last week regarding a decision made in 2015 - that of the Healthier Together programme. Readers will be familiar with this issue, which involved reconfiguring the hospitals across Greater Manchester and focusing certain procedures on specialist hospitals.

Whilst we were all delighted to see Stepping Hill designated as one of these hospitals, it was of great concern when this decision was challenged by practitioners from Wythenshawe. I and many others made our concerns very clear, should that challenge have succeeded. Last week it was announced that the appeal was unsuccessful and it was found that the original decision had been properly taken and was robust. This means that the original decision stands. Whilst the Doctors who launched the challenge may seek the right to appeal, it is good news that the original decision was upheld and I hope that should any further appeal be launched then it too will be dismissed.

Although the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017, there is still a distinct possibility that it will be held in 2016. People ask me what side of the argument I will come down on, and my position is that it depends on what concessions the Prime Minister manages to get from the EU.  There are great benefits from our membership, but the ever-spreading tentacles of political control emanating out of the EU are something that concerns me and many others - both in the High Peak and across the country.

I am pleased that at last there will be a referendum; it has been promised by all political parties at some point, but now it is a definite reality and when it does come along then the whole country can take part in the fully informed debate. The final decision will not be taken by politicians, but by all of us when we cast our vote - whichever way. One thing is sure; it will be one of the most crucial decisions that we will all be faced with in our lifetimes.

This is my last column of 2015 and reflecting on the year, it has been a momentous one. The 2015 General Election will be remembered as one that didn’t really ignite until the last week or so of the campaign. Throughout it was expected that there would be a hung Parliament, but when the results started coming through it became clear that all the pollsters and pundits were going to be proved wrong.

As we now know the country elected a Conservative Government for the first time since 1992. Naturally I was delighted and more delighted to be re-elected as the MP for the High Peak. Since May, which seems a very long time ago now, Parliament has been extremely busy as the new Government has begun implementing its manifesto. Possibly the most dramatic moment of the new Parliament was the vote on Syria and I have written and said much on this. There have been many other key moments, but as we approach the Christmas period I am sure people will want to take a break from politics and there will be many other political summaries of 2015 written over the coming days as the year comes to an end and 2016 begins.

Last week did see the latest unemployment figures released and they had more good news for the High Peak. Since 2010 levels of unemployment across the country and in the UK have steadily declined. The employment rate is at the highest in our history and unemployment is now at a 7 year low at 5.2%. There are more women in work than ever before, the proportion of under 25’s who are unemployed and not full time students is the lowest on record and the number of long term unemployed people has fallen by 25% in the last year.

In the High Peak the claimant count has fallen by 25% in the last year and by over 60% since 2010, so we have more people in work in the High Peak - as we have across the country - which has to be good news.

Finally, with Christmas just around the corner it just leaves me to wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year for 2016.

The long awaited announcement over the rail franchises was made last week. This decided on who will provide the rail services on the lines servicing the High Peak. The Northern franchise covers the service into both Buxton and Glossop from Manchester and the Trans-Pennine Franchise includes the line between Manchester and Sheffield that takes in the Hope Valley and also Chinley. These franchises will start in April 2016. The Northern franchise will run for nine years until 2025 and the Trans-Pennine for 7 years until 2023. Both of them have an optional extension at the discretion of the Secretary of State at the time. The Northern franchise was awarded to Arriva Rail North Ltd. and the Trans-Pennine to First TransPennine Express Ltd.

Both these awards are hugely significant for the High Peak as there have been serious concerns over the rail services we receive in the High Peak and, like many, I have been awaiting this announcement with keen anticipation. I am pleased to see improvements included in the new franchises; journey times between Buxton and Manchester will reduce, there will be longer trains on the Glossop line by 2017, which in turn will be replaced with new trains by 2020. There will be over £1 billion worth of investment into the Northern franchise, and there will be more capacity introduced on the Manchester – Sheffield line as part of the Trans-Pennine arrangements.

I am encouraged by the new franchises and there is much to be welcomed in them; greater capacity, more trains, significant investment across both franchises, new trains, introduction of free Wifi and the removal of the Pacer trains. There are also challenging targets on cancellations which the operators will have to meet.

It is early days and I, like others, am studying all the proposals closely and will be meeting with both the successful bidding companies early in the new year to go through all their plans in more detail, to ensure that we can look forward to a service that is fit for purpose and delivers what we need across the High Peak. There are questions that I have and also some initial concerns over the plans, but with the new franchises being more rigorous than the previous ones and with the companies holding them for at least 7 years they have the time to ensure that the investment can go into the rail services, and I want to be certain that investment benefits the rail users of the High Peak.

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