The view from Westminster
Westminster’s first session ended in late July and all MPs returned to their constituencies for recess, a little downtime and the chance to catch up more fully with local activities.
The last two days of term were not without excitement and strange behaviour by opposition parties. We had the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, which set into law the Chancellor’s budget with changes to the benefits cap, down from £26,000 to £20,000 (£23,000 in London), and the introduction of a National Living Wage.
This key policy returns more financial responsibility to employers, cutting back on the taxpayer underwriting cheap wages now that the employment market is strong and trade is good. It will start at £7.20 per hour for over 25s, rising to £9 per hour by 2020. Under 25s remain on the minimum wage. There are reductions in corporate taxes and national insurance so that employers are supported.
Labour decided to abstain on this Bill, which in my book means that they basically agree with the principles; all except 48 Labour MPs. They were joined in the lobby by the SNP. So in the end the bill passed comfortably by 308 votes to 124.
On the last day of term we debated the second reading of the Finance Bill, which contains the regular parts of the budget like tax rates.
There are special ‘rules’ for finance bills in that they have no cut off point so MPs can talk until the next day if they want to. There were rumblings from whips about 3am finishes, but in the end Labour just went home (literally, they opted out from casting a view). The SNP put up some opposition, and because Labour had left the building, they moved seats and sat at the despatch box. It seems we have a turf war for supremacy on the opposition benches.
We had our last Public Accounts Committee meeting in public, discussing the effectiveness of the Pupil Premium. I was leading the questioning and it was a nerve-wracking experience to demand answers from the Permanent Secretary. It was a particular pleasure that one of the two witnesses was Berwick Academy’s headteacher Alexis Widdowson, who shared with the committee some of the challenges of a coastal community with low aspiration in a large part of its parent group.
Overall, we reached a fundamentally positive view of the Pupil Premium as a motivator for schools to ensure those with most needs are better supported. But to ensure schools which aren’t making big strides to shrink the attainment gap between disadvantaged pupils (those qualifying for Free School Meals) and the rest, action needs to be firmer from OFSTED and the Department of Education.
I am now the very proud owner of a special uniform for when I visit military bases as part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme. The idea is that I can spend time with troops without looking completely out of place. I will be visiting RAF Boulmer later in the month.
We had a family outing to the Tom Jones concert on Saturday in Alnwick Castle and I was disappointed and cross on behalf of all those who had saved up to experience what should have been a really special night, but got only half a concert. I have written to the organisers, calling for them to provide compensation.
Local issues make progress and the next few weeks will see us get our application for Enterprise Zones in place amongst other things. Much to do, but a bit of downtime first so that I can be most effective as we fight those battles for a brighter future for Berwick.
I have started my summer tour. If you want to catch up with me do look for details of where I am at www.teamtrevelyan.co.uk
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