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Richmond Park News: 23 June 2023


LATEST INFLATION AND INTEREST RATES


Statistics released this week brought further cause for concern for the UK’s economic outlook. Inflation remains stubbornly high at 8.7% and, more worryingly, core inflation (cost of goods and services, excluding food and energy) has actually increased. The Prime Minister is failing to deliver on his pledge to halve inflation by the end of this year.

As a result, the Bank of England increased interest rates to 5% yesterday – the highest rate in 15 years. This latest rise will cause misery for millions of mortgage-holders across the country who are coming to the end of fixed term deals, and prevent many aspiring homeowners from getting on the property ladder.

Raising interest rates is the main lever the Bank of England pulls to tackle inflation. However, the effectiveness of this strategy has been called into question amidst persistently high inflation rates. The Government could, and should, have done much more to bring down inflation. The Liberal Democrats have been calling for increased energy support for business since the package was slashed by around 80% in April, causing businesses to pass increased prices onto consumers. The Government must also tackle the NHS backlog, which is keeping people off work due to ill-health and directly contributing towards labour shortages that drive up wages.

I spoke to Times Radio yesterday to discuss the Government’s failure to use the tools at its disposal to bring down inflation to the benefit of everyone across the country.


REPORT ON VOTER ID LAW


I was shocked to read the interim report from the Electoral Commission on the impact of the new voter ID laws on the recent local elections yesterday. The report finds that

  • Approximately 14,000 voters who went to a polling station were not able to vote as a result of not being able to show ID.

  • 4% of all people who said they did not vote at the elections on 4 May listed the ID requirement as the reason.

  • In addition to the 14,000 people prevented from voting in polling stations due to the requirement, significantly more did not attempt to vote because they lacked the required ID.

  • Disabled people and those who are unemployed were more likely than other groups to give a reason related to ID for not voting.

I joined my Liberal Democrat colleagues in vociferously opposing the Voter ID laws brought in by the Conservative government, and I voted against the legislation in Parliament. I also sponsored a bill to scrap the photo ID requirement presented by my Liberal Democrat colleague Helen Morgan ahead of the local elections.


We now see that this expensive and undemocratic law has disenfranchised 14,000 citizens in May, to allegedly address a problem that is virtually non-existent. In 2022, for example, there were seven reported cases of personation at a polling station in the UK, none of which resulted in the police taking any further action.


I urge all of my constituents to make themselves aware of the voter ID laws and ensure that they have organised the appropriate ID to enable them to vote. The next scheduled elections, for the London Mayor and Greater London Assembly Members, are May 2nd 2024, but we know that there will be a General Election at some point in the next 18 months. Please go to Richmond Electoral Services or Kingston Electoral Services if you think you may need a voter authority certificate.

Ensuring that every single person can cast their vote is a fundamental principle of democracy. I will continue fighting for this law to be repealed and for all of my constituents enfranchised again.



PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE


In my role as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I took part in two witness evidence sessions this week to discuss progress with our inquiries into Making Tax Digital (the Government’s transformation programme to digitalise the tax system) and the rollout of smart meters.

In the session on Making Tax Digital, I was able to question Jim Harra, the First Permanent Secretary and Chief Executive for HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC). I took the opportunity to ask him about HMRC’s progress in reducing the tax gap and increasing the amount of tax revenue that is being collected. In response, he assured me that he was confident in their quantitative and qualitative social research findings that Making Tax Digital would increase tax revenue.

In the session on the rollout of smart meters, the Committee spoke to representatives from the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero to examine progress in transforming all household energy meters across the country into smart meters. Smart meters provide near-real time information to suppliers on energy usage and display the cost of energy usage. At the end of December 2022, 55% of all meters were considered smart meters. This is important progress, however there are significant disparities in take-up rates amongst different groups. I therefore urged officials to tackle low take-up across London and in the private rented sector.


DROP-IN TO SUPPORT SHOOTING STAR HOSPICE


On Wednesday, I met with Paul Farthing from Shooting Star Hospice in Hampton to support the campaign by children’s charity ‘Together for Short Lives’ to save the Children’s Hospice Grant. At the event, I heard about the devastating impact the loss of the Children’s Hospice Grant would have on children’s hospices in England, and the implications if this did not continue to be centrally distributed.

Research conducted by Together for Short Lives found that if the grant were cut, two-thirds of hospices would cut the hospice at home services they provide and 38% would cut end of life care. You can read more about the campaign on the Together for Short Lives website.

I am therefore delighted to hear that the Minister has now confirmed this vital funding will be extended. However, this is only a one-year commitment and the sector really needs a sustainable funding solution to ensure they are able to continue providing care. I have therefore written to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care to call for the Children’s Hospice Grant to be protected, extended and directly distributed by NHS England beyond March 2024, as it is now.



THAMES WATER: HAM LANDS


I know that many residents are extremely concerned about Thames Water's proposal to construct a major infrastructure project on Ham Lands. The scheme, which involves removing between 75 million and 100 million litres of river water a day from the Thames and replacing it with treated wastewater is naturally extremely concerning from a water quality standpoint. However, the possible damage constructing the project will do to Ham Lands is even more worrying.


Thousands of movements of heavy goods vehicles running to six major construction sites on a local nature reserve is a shocking prospect for everyone who knows and loves Ham Lands. While I am willing to accept that Thames Water's plan has not been properly developed and so might not pose as significant a threat as current documentation shows, I believe the community's concerns justify national attention.


This week, I have written to Therese Coffey, Secretary of State for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs to ask her to both meet with me and to place this project under extreme Government scrutiny. In 2020, her department committed to protecting and restoring 500,000 hectares of natural land across the UK, and I hope she will consider this commitment when making any decision on the project.


HAMMERSMITH BRIDGE


Last week, I wrote to Richard Holden MP, Minister for Roads and Local Transport to ask that he reaffirm his commitment to reopening the bridge and call a meeting of the Hammersmith Bridge task force to allow representatives from all affected communities to question the Mayor on opposition to a toll without any alternative plan in place.


The Minister's response was lacklustre at best, providing no assurances and effectively washing his hands of the problem, declaring the works a matter for the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham (LBHF).


In 2019, the then Secretary of State for Transport Grant Shapps stated in a campaign video that "the next Conservative Government will not allow this [bridge] to just remain closed", offering to work with the Mayor and LBHF to ensure the bridge is opened.


I will continue to press the DfT to honour their commitment and urge all sides to come to the table and bring the closure to an end as quickly as possible.



NHS DENTISTY MEETING


This week, I met with Sarah Hurley, Chief Dental Officer for England, and Ali Sparke, NHS England’s Director for Dentistry. We discussed the key issues facing NHS Dentistry, including the backlog of unmet demand and workforce shortages. I know many of my constituents have faced trouble finding NHS dentists accepting new patients or being able to book an appointment at the dentists they are already registered with.

In the meeting, Sarah Hurley spoke of the need for a shift in the frequency of standard check-up appointments, emphasising that most people do not need check-ups every six months. This would depend on an assessment of each individual’s risk profile but could potentially free up capacity for more appointments. While this may be a reasonable stop-gap measure, fundamentally we need a total reform in the way the NHS compensates dentists, with contracts renegotiated and funding increased to ensure that medical professionals are properly compensated for the work they do.



KINGSTON CoC FUTURE OF WORK SUMMIT


It was great to join the Kingston Chamber of Commerce's "Future of Work Summit" last week to discuss how industry and business might change over the coming years. We live in a fascinating time, where AI, Social Media, and home working are all rapidly changing industries that have remained relatively stable for years and it is fascinating to see the private sector moving with these innovations.


Alongside roundtable discussions on a myriad of topics, there were business seminars on everything from using digital innovations to boost your business to personal leadership and business culture. I'm incredibly grateful to have had the opportunity to attend and I would urge any Kingston based businesses to keep an eye on the Chamber of Commerce's future events.


CAREERS TALK AT TIFFIN GIRLS SCHOOL

Yesterday, I delivered a presentation to students and parents from Kingston schools (Tiffin, Tiffin Girls, Kingston Grammar and The Kingston Academy) on my career and the wider career options available to those interested in politics. In addition to working directly in Parliament, we spoke about the options available across public affairs, the media, pressure groups, political parties, think tanks and the civil service.

It was fantastic to see how politically engaged the students were and to answer their really thoughtful and well-informed questions. This talk was part of my wider outreach work to students across the constituency, which is in addition to hosting a small number of students in July and October on my work experience programme. I am very keen to engage with young people across the constituency and to share my experiences and knowledge of the political sphere to those who may also wish to pursue such a career path.


Sarah speaking at Future of Work Summit and Tiffin Girls School
Future of Work (photo credit Robyn Harper) and Tiffin Girls Career Talk

KINGSTON NEWS


KINGFISHER LEISURE CENTRE


I was very pleased to learn this week from Councillor Andreas Kirsch, Leader of Kingston Council, that the replacement for the Kingfisher Leisure Centre will be going ahead. While we have limited details so far, it seems the new centre will feature an eight lane swimming pool, training pool, sports hall, gym and other amenities. As someone who spent many wonderful days in the old Kingfisher Centre, it is great to hear that a replacement is now on the way.


The closure of the former centre left a significant gap in swimming provision in the borough. However, Councillor Kirsch's commitment to delivering a high quality new venue that will serve generations of children and residents, while protecting public finances in a time of economic upheaval and spirally construction costs, is great to see. I will update residents on the progress of the project and share a timeline as soon as I have one.



KINGSTON'S STREET LIGHTS ARE GOING GREEN


I was very pleased to learn this week that Kingston Council is making good progress upgrading and modernising the borough's street light network. So far, 6,160 of the 7,034 old lights have been upgraded with modern LED bulbs which provide just as much light but use half the power of the original bulbs.


The project will not only save the public purse £220,000 a year in energy costs, but also avoid generating 5050 tonnes of carbon emissions over the next 25 years. This kind of project is a great example of green initiatives which don't cost the earth and I look forward to seeing it completed by the end of this year.



KINGSTON INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL


This weekend, the second Kingston International Film Festival will be taking place across the borough, showcasing a wide selection of films, documentaries, shorts and discussion panels. It's a great opportunity to see films you might never have considered, and learn from both established industry professionals and aspiring film makers from across the world.


The Festival will be running at Cinemas across the borough and will even include an outdoor screening of Bugsy Malone at the Canbury Bandstand. The event will close with a Gala Awards ceremony and I wish the very best of luck to everyone entering.




RICHMOND NEWS


BIRTHDAY HONOURS FOR NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH FOUNDER


This week, it was great to see that Richmond resident and community champion Bunny Farnell-Watson was awarded an OBE in the Kings Birthday Honours List for her outstanding work with the Neighbourhood Watch over the last 30 years. Bunny formed the first Neighbourhood Watch organisation in South Richmond with three others across four streets in the area. Now, there are over 55 Neighbourhood Watch Coordinators on 53 streets with a membership in the thousands.


I know how concerning criminal activity has been to many people in the constituency and this only goes to highlight how important Bunny's work has been. Instead of simply accepting crime as a part of life, our community asks what it can do to help fight criminal activity and work for a safer Neighbourhood. Bunny is an inspiration to us all and while this award does not go far enough to thank her for all her years of hard work, it is a pleasure to see her being honoured for her passion and dedication.



BARNES CHILDREN'S LITERATURE FESTIVAL


This weekend, Barnes is playing host to the largest children's literature festival in the United Kingdom. with more than 100 readings, workshops and performances for young book fans and their families. This year's programme is packed with family friendly theatre including a brand new show based on the extraordinary world of Roald Dahl, a magical Pippi Longstocking storytelling session and a trip to the wacky world of The Wizard of Oz.


Having attended the festival last year, I can thoroughly recommend stopping in for one of the events, it is a great day out and the perfect opportunity to feed your children's inner bookworm.





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