This week, I participated in Thursday’s edition of BBC Politics Live. Topics included the British decision to send Challenger tanks to Ukraine, the tax affairs of Conservative Chairman Nadhim Zahawi and the Northern Ireland Protocol, amongst others.
I took an opportunity in the discussion to express Liberal Democrat support for the decision to join many of our NATO allies in sending armoured vehicles to Ukraine, and to firmly place down the marker that my party believes that the United Kingdom will be best served by improving relations with Europe, and moving towards re-joining of the EU Customs Union and Single Market.
It is clear that the current Government is short of ideas on the economy, and unable to recognise the benefits of improved relations with Europe. I therefore wanted to set out my party’s opposing perspective. You can see a clip here.
QUESTIONING HMRC IN THE PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Yesterday, I led a session of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on ‘Tax Compliance Following the Pandemic’, where we questioned the chief executive of HMRC, Jim Harra. I asked him about the definition of the term ‘carelessness’ in tax affairs, of which the Chairman of the Conservative Party, Nadhim Zahawi, has been accused. In his response, Mr Harra said that someone accused of ‘carelessness’ has committed a ‘non-innocent error’ in their tax affairs, and that innocent errors were not subject to the penalty that Mr Zahawi has received.
I am shocked that a serving Government minister, and former Chancellor of the Exchequer, could have been so flippant about his own taxes. I firmly believe this falls below the standards expected of the highest offices in our Government. I spoke to Times Radio last night about the point, and stressed that Britain should expect higher standards from its Ministers, and Mr Zahawi should resign.
QUESTIONING HOUSING OFFICIALS AT PAC
On Monday, I questioned officials from the Department for Housing, Levelling Up and Communities, regarding the current state of housing in both the social and private rental sectors.
Last year, the tragic death of Awaab Ishak in Rochdale shone a light on the dangerous and unfit conditions some families are being forced to live in. This is a major issue in Richmond Park -- one which is reported to me and my team on a regular basis. I was therefore pleased that the officials were able to give me a detailed response about their awareness of the issue, and that they were working towards tackling it.
ENERGY BILLS SUPPORT FOR HEAT NETWORKS AND PRE-PAYMENT METERS
Earlier this week, I attended a private briefing for MPs with the Minister for Energy, Graham Stuart, to discuss energy support for households who were unable to receive the £400 energy bills discount (Energy Bills Support Scheme - EBSS). This includes households on heat networks and those with pre-payment meters.
Households on heat networks or living in park homes or houseboats are eligible for EBSS Alternative Funding. The Minister told MPs that the application portal for this will now open on 27th February 2023. This is despite previous assurances from the Government that support would be administered “this Winter”. This delay in unacceptable and will impact hundreds of constituents across Richmond Park. My Liberal Democrat colleagues and I have raised our concerns to the Energy Minister.
Households on pre-payment meters are able to redeem vouchers equivalent to the £400 EBSS discount. Vouchers are sent to eligible customers via post or email and can be redeemed at a refill point. New data has revealed that thousands of vouchers are not being redeemed. The Minister told MPs on Tuesday that redemption rates in London are especially low. I would encourage all eligible constituents to redeem their vouchers, and to be mindful of the expiry date. Many suppliers also offer grants or extra support to customers facing financial hardship - please do check the information available on their websites.
CALL TO CREATIVE WORKERS – CONTRIBUTE TO MY SURVEY
Next Wednesday, 1 February, I will be holding a Parliamentary debate on ‘the potential impact of artificial intelligence (AI) on the intellectual property rights of creative workers.'
The Government has proposed an exemption to copyright in order to promote AI. If implemented, this could be detrimental to the millions of creative workers such as musicians, authors and filmmakers who rely on copyright for their revenue stream and control over their work. I hope this debate can explore the impact of AI on creative industries, and identify steps that could be taken to support the UK’s world-leading creative industry, which contributes over £100 billion to the economy each year.
I am especially keen to hear from people working in creative industries, or representing those who do, ahead of the debate. I have set up a survey to gather this testimony. Please feel free to share with family or friends who may be interested.
Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the ULEZ zone has been at the forefront of many residents’ minds recently. While the Liberal Democrats are committed to reducing air pollution, the rapid expansion of the ULEZ with a limited scrappage scheme and no increased funding for public transport posed serious issues for us.
For this reason, I was extremely pleased that my colleagues in the London Assembly, Caroline Pidgeon AM and Hina Bokhari AM, passed an amendment to the scheme yesterday, almost doubling the current scrappage scheme to £200 million and pledging to invest £25 million in outer London bus services. The amendment would also allow all blue badge holders access to the scrappage scheme. The extra resources would mean more people will be able to access compensation if they own a non-compliant car, and public transport in our community would receive a badly needed boost.
With Caroline and Hina's amendment passed in the the London Assembly, it is now awaiting the Mayor's approval. We strongly hope he will give his assent to these much-needed measures.
If you are worried about the ULEZ expansion, I would urge you to check TfL’s website. Almost 87% of cars across the city are eligible for exemption. You can check if your vehicle is exempt with the link here.
In March, I will be introducing a Bill to Parliament which would create statutory targets to improve the energy efficiency of homes across the country. This would not only help to reduce carbon emissions, but also lower energy bills and protect households against the volatile energy market.
To draw attention to this issue, I would like to meet with constituents and local businesses who have developed or installed ingenious and novel ways of making their homes more energy efficient. If you fall into this group and would like to help raise awareness of this issue, please do get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org .
BEVERLY BROOK WATER QUALITY
This week, I visited Beverly Brook with councillors from Mortlake and Barnes Common and Barnes to learn more about the pressure the river is under. This small river is facing environmental catastrophe, with several combined sewer outflows dotted along its banks, each intermittently pumping diluted sewage into the stream. With such a small river, this quantity of sewage severely damages local wildlife.
The instinctual response is to blame water companies for this disaster. However, the situation is more complex than meets the eye. Poorly installed sewer lines connected to rainwater drains, badly maintained water seals, and a different form of sewage system in Wandsworth all contribute to the state of the river. We need all stakeholders, including local and national governments, along with water companies, to take action to begin cleaning up this river. If you are worried about sewage dumping in Beverly Brook or the Thames, you can view the most recent overflows by visiting the tracker here.
I had a letter from Met Police Commission Sir Mark Rowley this week, telling me about his draft Turnaround Plan for the Metropolitan Police. The plan, which you can see here, has three parts:
1. A new performance framework with twenty headline measures that will deliver their mission of More Trust, Less Crime, High Standards
2. A focus on values of integrity, professionalism, compassion, courage and respect
3. Nine reform priorities designed to deliver better crime fighting
I am encouraged by Sir Mark's commitment to improving the Met Police's culture and performance, and hope we will soon start to see benefits in our community.
Despite industrial action and increased pressure on healthcare services it is really important that patients who need urgent medical care continue to contact the emergency services in emergency and life-threatening cases – when someone is seriously ill or injured, or their life is at risk. If you are not sure what to do, the NHS 111 service (both online and by telephone) will be available and should be used as the first contact for non-life-threatening cases.
It's important to be aware of the winter illnesses currently circulating and the best ways to protect your child and others. There are simple actions we can all can take to help protect our families and those around us, like washing our hands and staying home when we don't feel well. Teaching children about hygiene and what to do when coughing or sneezing - as well as keeping up to date with vaccinations - will also help everyone to stay well. Click here for information and links to other resources.
WORKSHOPS ON TECHNOLOGY AND MENTAL HEALTH
Richmond Mind is hosting a new workshop focusing on technology and mental health – Tech Check for Parents and Carers – on Wednesday 22nd February, from 7-8.30pm. They will discuss the impact of tech use on the mental wellbeing of young and vulnerable people. Sign up for free here. You can also still sign up for their Connecting by Disconnecting workshop this Tuesday 31st January, from 2-3pm, here.
WINTER HEALTH WELLBEING: HELPING YOU HELP YOURSELF
Community Health Champions in Richmond Upon Thames, in partnership with Public Health Richmond, are inviting residents to their first community engagement event to support residents during the winter. Come and meet local health and wellbeing services available in the borough that can offer support during the current 'Cost of Living' crisis, and advice about general winter health and wellbeing. It is also an opportunity to meet your local Health Champions. This will take place TOMORROW, Saturday 28 January, from 11.00 - 17.00 at RHACC, Parkshot, Richmond TW9 2RE. Click here to book a free place.
CREATING A CONVERSATION SPACE
A new space for conversations about the borough, in the heart of Kingston town centre, is taking shape this week, as students from Kingston University's School of Art start installing their designs. Kingston's pilot urban room, called Open Frame, is a joint project between Kingston Council, the Kingston Society, the North Kingston Neighbourhood Forum, Chessington District Residents' Association, New Malden Residents’ Association and Kingston University. The space, which is in Market House in Kingston's Market Place, is currently being used to support the consultation on a vision for the borough and the draft new Local Plan and will also be hosting other projects and discussions in the coming weeks. Everyone is welcome to drop in to see the exhibition and share their views, or attend one of the events, to get involved discussing the future development of our borough. Open Frame is open Thursday to Sunday this week, and then open daily from 1 February 2023.
HELP CHOOSE TREE LOCATIONS FOR THE QUEEN'S GREEN CANOPY!
More than 500 trees are being planted across Kingston borough this winter - including over 150 taking root in locations nominated by Kingston residents. The council is now offering residents and community groups the opportunity to reserve and plant one of 50 native Queen Elizabeth field maple trees (Acer campestre Queen Elizabeth) in their local public open space, in honour of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. This is part of the Queen’s Green Canopy project, with over a million trees being planted across the country to create a living legacy. Read more about this and reserve your tree.