Huw Merriman discussed small businesses yesterday

Yesterday in the House of Commons a debate took place followed by a vote on the theme of supporting small businesses. It was clear that the votes were not sufficient to adopt the call by the Labour Party to support small businesses. The only Sussex MP that took part in the debate was Huw Merriman and amongst other comments he made the following statement which would seem to be a very useful comment and perhaps he will be willing to persuade his colleagues in Sussex in the Conservative Party to sit down with the Chamber of Commerce and try to improve matters for our businesses. Here is some of his words.

I represent a constituency in Sussex that is absolutely reliant in employment terms on small businesses in leisure, tourism and retail. The constituency I represent has businesses that were among the 750,000 that were given a business rate holiday. Furlough is not just keeping the employees going but making sure that they are returning back to the businesses. Some 15,300 workers in my constituency, about a third, were reliant on furlough to keep them going. When I went round to visit those businesses last summer—it had been very difficult for us to meet, but the changes in the summer allowed us to do that—they were absolutely of the view that had it not been for the Government’s support, their businesses would have shut down and their employees would have been made redundant. Everything that I am about to say has to be put in the context of the fact that this Government have absolutely supported business. I absolutely refute the point that the Conservative party is no longer the party of business; it absolutely is and it will always have the champions of business on these Benches.

In the six years since I have been a Member of this place, I have always championed the need to reform business rates. If we look across the G7, we see that the UK has the largest property taxes. They are a tax on jobs and a tax on business, and I would like to see them reformed. Over those years, we have had a number of reviews, and we are waiting on one at the moment. I would dearly like to see business rates replaced. The CBI is right when it says that business rates are a tax on business and jobs and lead to uncertainty.

So what is not very clear is what was the nature of the vote. All but two of the Sussex Conservative MPs voted against it and both of the Labour MPs voted in favour of it. The votes were not sufficient at 215 vs 298 so fractionally less than 80% of the voters that took part. The three Sussex MPs that did not vote were Caroline Lucas, Andrew Griffith and Nick Gibb. So the Sussex votes represented about 80% of the total as well. Perhaps we will find out in the near future what the vote was calling for. However just as importantly perhaps some of the Sussex MPs could begin to listen to Huw Merriman and engage with the Sussex businesses.

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A Windrush question that did not get an answer

Yesterday there was a question and answer session with Priti Patel when Parliament reopened after their 3 week break. Towards the end of the session the following question took place raised by Kate Osamor who is the Labour MP for Edmonton. She asked this question and it seems as though there was no real answer which is very disappointing. I am very aware of a friend of mine who died a few weeks ago who was linked to the Windrush campaign and although he did not need to claim against the Government, his death reminds all of us that the time left for many of the people who arrived in 1948 is very short and we need our Government to correct their mistakes which were made over the last few decades.

Kate Osamor: Is the Secretary of State aware that victims of the Windrush scandal are disproportionately likely to be suffering extreme hardship? Will she publish guidance on the Department’s expedition process for claims under the scheme, so that those in acute need, such as my constituent Anthony Bryan, can apply for expedition?

Priti Patel: The hon. Lady will be well aware of the extensive work that is taking place around the Windrush compensation scheme and the support that we have offered her constituent. If she would like to meet me to discuss this further, she would be very welcome.

So perhaps Kate Osamor can meet with Priti Patel in a context that is publicly accessible so that the question and answer will be made public and people like Anthony Bryan can benefit.

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The House of Lords raised two vital themes

Last week in Parliament two very important themes were raised in the House of Lords by Sussex Peers. Sadly, the first of them which related to apprenticeships, raised by Ralph Palmer had some deeply negative comments that I don’t recognise. Where we both agree is that the Government needs to improve apprenticeships arrangements by asking businesses in regions like Sussex to participate and indeed, I am booked in. Interestingly Ralph or Lord Lucas is a Conservative and was a Minister. The second theme was a brief question from Steve Bassam who is a Labour Peer. He asked

it is now three years since their consultation ended…. what plans they have to tackle our high-risk score, stop money laundering and protect the UK against terrorist financing?

and the response was

We intend to legislate … and will do so as soon as parliamentary time allows.

This is deeply concerning as so many activities can be achieved during the hours that Parliament is open which for MPs it open ups again today. Let us hope that the Government will find some time very soon to resolve this.

On the theme of Apprenticeships, despite many claims from the Government, there have been gaps in training opportunities for small businesses that sit outside of the historic courses. However, I and many other people have been aware of this for a long time. This appears to be because Governmental plans have focused on large Companies and ignored small businesses in local settings where training takes place. If this current arrangement is successful, we will see a number of changes in the way in which the colleges can operate which will emerge from individual companies in our communities. The first few words from Ralph, many of which I agreed with included

the engineering kit that the FE college has is 20 years out of date, and graduates have to be completely retrained if they enter engineering…The need for local employers to be involved in local skills provision is very clear to me.

I have been involved in discussions with colleges and business networks and the challenge is that the Government has set out criteria for colleges which have prevented local ideas to be adopted. Our business has signed up for the apprenticeship discussions which seem very positive if a bit late in the cycle of Conservative apprenticeship intentions.  We now need the end results to be treated positively by the Government in due course. Sadly, after his first few comments, Ralph stated negatively

the Sussex Chamber of Commerce knows very little about what happens down at the town level. There is almost no relationship between the Sussex chamber and Eastbourne; Eastbourne is dealt with by the Eastbourne Chamber of Commerce. There is also very little relationship between the Sussex Chamber of Commerce and that huge employer of people in Sussex: London

It is certainly true that every Chamber works differently and they are individual. I am involved in the Uckfield Chamber of Commerce (CoC), I have previously attended Brighton Chamber events and I am also involved in the Sussex CoC. None of these organisations are identical and perhaps some could strengthen their roles but there is a great deal of connection between them and the numerous small businesses in Sussex. The Sussex CoC is due to hold initial conversations on this theme in Brighton, Eastbourne, Crawley and Arundel in the next few weeks. Any local companies in Sussex can go to these events and we have been assured we will be very welcome in our call from Sussex CoC.

As it happens one of my contacts is Dan Shelley, the Executive Director at East Sussex College and a Board member of Sussex CoC. He stated

The success of our Local Skills Plan will be built on the partnership between a range of employer representative groups and organisations, from local town chambers to the Institute of Directors and Federation of Small Businesses, all feeding in their short, medium and long terms skills needs into the process.

He also commented

we are working very closely with Eastbourne Chamber and a wide number of town and local chambers as well as other business organisations to capture the voices of local employers.

Another contact I have is with Ana Christie the Chief Executive of Sussex Chamber of Commerce who has commented

Chambers are rooted in local business communities with strong and genuine collaborative links already in place…. Sussex Chamber works closely with all business groups and area town Chambers and has had a strong relationship for many years with many, including Eastbourne Chamber who is affiliated to Sussex.

I wonder if Ralph Palmer would be willing to connect with some of these groups before he makes any more critical statements in Parliament? Indeed, perhaps our Sussex MPs could participate too!

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How can we get some more signatures?

So this is the latest partial map from a petition which I set out at the end of June and so far it has received 2,635 signatures. It has benefited support from most of the UK constituencies but there are also some gaps as shown here and listed below. The petition is available here and it is a very clear call to Provide additional funding for redistributing surplus food which was a request back in early April from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee. The Committee is a group of 11 MPs of whom 6 are Conservatives which include Neil Parish who is the Chair, 4 are Labour and one is SNP. As it happens as you can read here, their call was supported by a Conservative Minister Victoria Prentis but tragically her Government rejected the call on the 18th June. So 11 days later I formed the petition.

All of these MPs have signatures in their constituency with 7 in Banbury where Victoria Prentis is the MP and 4 in Tiverton and Honiton where Neil Parish is the MP. All of the others have 1-7 currently signatures but it would be fantastic to increase them. There are a number of high value signatures such as 55 in Chesham and Amersham, 24 in Truro and Falmouth, 22 in Oxford East, 20 in Colne Valley, 18 in Huddersfield, 16 in Edinburgh South and 6 in Na h-Eileanan an Iar. There are of course a number with more signatures but these ones that represent the largest percentage of their constituents. As you can see and perhaps it is not surprising, the Sussex area is currently the strongest area. Here in Sussex at present we have more than 700 signatures of which 218 are from West Sussex, 146 from East Sussex and 342 from the 3 Brighton and Hove constituencies.

So let us see if we can get some more areas that are strong with larger numbers of signatures while at the same time to remove as many as these zeros as we can. The Zero’s currently shown here include:

Wales: Cardiff Central; Caerphilly; Islwyn; Blaenau Gwent; Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

South West – Bournemouth West; North Swindon

South East: Newbury; Wokingham; Mid Bedfordshire

West Midlands: Redditch; Mid Worcestershire; Kenilworth and Southam

East – West Suffolk; Braintree; Clacton; Maldon; Rayleigh and Wickford; Castle Point; Broxbourne; Epping Forrest

London – Harrow East; Hayes and Harlington; Feltham and Heston; Ealing Central and Acton; Carshalton and Wallington; Bexleyheath and Crayford; Dagenham and Rainham

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Thanks for your Sussex question Jenny Randerson

Yesterday in the House of Lords a written question from Jenny Randerson was responded to by Charlotte Vere on the theme of the Barcombe Bridge. The question related to the infilling of it and there are a significant number of people who want it to remain unfilled. Charlotte once sought to get elected in our constitution before she became a member of the House of Lords, so she has some familiarity of Sussex. She is now the Parliamentary Under Secretary for the Department for Transport. Jenny Randerson is the Liberal Democratic Transport Spokesperson and so although she is based in Wales she was clearly concerned abut the East Sussex issue. So here is the question and answer. Let us hope that the additional input that Charlotte referred to that is coming into National Highways through their newly created Stakeholder Advisory Forum will include local views from Lewes District. Indeed perhaps we could persuade Charlotte to identify where the Stakeholder Advisory Forum is based and who are the members?

Jenny: To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Highways England regarding the (1) ecological, (2) environmental, and (3) heritage, impact of the proposed infilling of Barcombe Bridge in East Sussex; what alternatives have been considered to infilling; and why is the infilling being progressed using development powers rather than a planning application.

Charlotte: There are no current plans to infill Barcombe Bridge. All infilling and demolition work on the Historical Railways Estate, including Barcombe Bridge, has been paused while National Highways review their programme and seek additional input through the newly created Stakeholder Advisory Forum.

National Highways will fully consult the Local Planning Authority at an appropriate official level irrespective of whether or not Permitted Development Rights already exist. These discussions would be documented prior to the commencement of any proposed works.

National Highways has been engaging with Transport for the South East, Lewes and Eastbourne District Council and East Sussex County Council over the safe maintenance of the bridge. Specific engagement with Lewes and Eastbourne District Council has occurred over the past 18 months and is ongoing.

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Another very disturbing comment regarding NI

All of us were very aware of the claims made by Boris Johnson prior to the EU deal that he promised to a group of businesses in Northern Ireland in a public session. The EU deal that he then negotiated was achieved and signed up for, but his earlier claims were torn up by him. His claims would only have worked if the UK was willing to stay within the EU trade deals but he prevented that from happening. The fact that he did so is not a shock to most people in the rest of the UK as many politicians and indeed some people outside of the political setting did not want us to. However the challenge for NI is that as recognised by most people who understand about peace in Ireland, they need to stay within the majority of the EU trade deals in order to ensure that the border between Eire and NI remains open and clear. Thus the only way for both the Good Friday agreement to remain and for the NI to remain a full and connected part of the rest of the UK is for us to stay in the EU trade deal. So late yesterday in this piece in the Independent newspaper these are some of the words which rather demonstrate that Johnsons claims are yet again deeply troubling. The headline is Boris Johnson made personal promise to ‘tear up’ protocol, claims DUP’s Ian Paisley and the first few words are

Boris Johnson made a personal promise to “tear up” the Northern Ireland Protocol once a Brexit deal with the EU was agreed, the senior DUP figure Ian Paisley Jr has claimed.

It follows remarks made by the prime minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, who said Downing Street’s plan was always to “ditch the bits we didn’t like”.

Confirming Cummings’ claim, Paisley Jr said Johnson gave him a guarantee before the 2019 general election that protocol commitments in any withdrawal deal with the EU would later be dropped.

At some stage the extent of his lies and claims that can be clearly challenged must surely make him a person who should be held to account? The fact that his Transport Department organised by Grant Shapps has prevented one of the networks for transport businesses to participate in discussions because they have positive views about remaining in the EU is deeply concerning. Many of us are still very unhappy with the way in which Brexit has gone and indeed many people who voted for us to leave are now very unhappy. For the Government to reject some businesses from their conversations is deeply concerning just as much as Johnsons lies.

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Proportional Representation is needed for the UK

I had the privilege of meeting Tony Blair on a couple of occasions and I also met some of his Ministers during my time working for Churches Together in Sussex and coordinating the Hope08 campaign across the UK. My meetings with Tony Blair all took place in Church settings and indeed on one occasion I was asked to pray for him and his family. On another I sat behind him and was able to shake hands as part of the service. I met Hilary Benn during one of the Labour conferences when he had asked to meet the FareShare project in Brighton and they brought a van over to the conference. I was invited to No 10 Downing Street as part of Hope 08 when Gordon Brown was the Prime Minister and I and a significant number of people met a wide range of people. It was a fascinating session for me because I was not due to go into No 10 and so I did not dress according to the requirements (I had jeans and a jumper, rather than a tie and a smart pair of trousers and a jacket). However at the last moment someone from No 10 called me in because they realised that the MPs did not know the groups from different parts of the UK and so I visually stuck out a bit!

I recognise many of the issues that the Labour Party did wrong – large sums of money for some parts of Brighton were far too much and led to workers getting jobs and then disappearing when the money ended. A much more serious case was the Iraq war in 2003. I took place in the campaign in London and the Bishops and their peers in Sussex wrote to the Government in opposition to it as well. Despite these major issues and there were others, the fact that in those days Labour was capable of running the Government was a very positive aspect. We now face a very different position across the UK as a result of future General Elections and we need the Labour Party at all levels to understand that and seek a much more collaborative approach. They need to enable areas like the whole of Sussex and indeed the whole of the South to be able to benefit from proportional representative elections. In the days before the red line was destroyed as a result of Brexit up in the North there were strong views from Labour that PR was not something that the Party would consider. However these have now changed and so the response in this years conference was very disturbing. What can we do to persuade them to revisit that issue very quickly?

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A very disturbing attack onto the National Trust

In the past I have written ac couple of times about the challenges being presented to the National Trust by parts of the Conservative Party. They seem unwilling to accept that some of the premises which the National Trust now owns on behalf of our Nation should be disclosed with their genuine history. Almost a year ago there was this piece and it was a reflection of the statement by John Hayes who is a very extreme MP on a number of themes. Back on the 12th November 2020 he stated

Britain’s heritage is under attack, ironically from those missioned to be the guardians of it. The National Trust, while losing money and sacking staff, has commissioned an expensive review of its properties’ links with colonialism, including Churchill’s Chartwell; unheroic characters at the National Maritime Museum are re-evaluating Nelson’s heroic status; and the custodians of the Churchill War Rooms are claiming that they need to look again at Churchill’s legacy. Can we have a debate on how these charitable organisations’ purpose is being perverted by political posturing, as they all seem to be in the thrall of the militant Black Lives Matter movement? Mr Deputy Speaker, defending our history and heritage is our era’s battle of Britain.

There now appears to be another challenge being set out to attack the National Trust by a group of people seeking to become a new group of Trustees. The most disturbing concept if accurate in this piece in the Guardian is that this group of people who are working together and have got funding to campaign for some of their group to succeed. As the article states

a range of “extreme” positions taken by individuals involved in a group called Restore Trust, which is backing a slate of candidates in elections for the NT’s governing council.

The group, which has been heavily promoted in the pages of the rightwing press after its foundation and has spoken of building up a “fighting fund” of tens of thousands of pounds, is also now using paid-for social media adverts to try to influence the election.

This is deeply concerning on several fronts but what is equally disturbing is that one of the people who has been identified within the group is a person who I have spoken to on one occasion and who tragically has a very strong view about themes that he wishes to change in our nation and beyond based on the article. He he has set himself up as though he was able to speak out on behalf of Christianity under his charitable agency called Christian Voice which is not promoting views that all Christians agree with. It raises many challenges, and when on the one occasion we spoke about his public criticism of someone else who had been a board member of the BBC he took my view as to determine that I am not a Christian. The irony was that the person he was criticising was someone who I had met and who was a Christian and his anger was the way in which the BBC was behaving. The fact is that board members don’t control every detail operated by their agency but perhaps he will have a different expectation if he is appointed as a Trustee. He has also visited Brighton on several occasions to campaign against the Pride events which creates a whole range of challenges for our area. Inevitably some other people agree with his views and may will support him in his new approach. However we need to enable the approach taken in the past by the National Trust to help explain what some of their premises have been used for in the past. Given that Slavery is still being identified today as a challenge from a range of churches, it seems acceptable that our history is also being displayed by groups like the National Trust. Equally if people in the past were LGBT, it would be very strange for the National Trust to be unable to disclose this in their settings.

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There was a clear call today for a NI Referendum

This morning on the Today programme on Radio 4 the call by Sir Jeffery Donaldson was very clear. He did not refer to a referendum in the formal sense but his words are clearly calling for the views of his local residents to be expressed and a referendum is the only way to achieve that as has been disclosed by many politicians within the UK. Jeffery Donaldson has been the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland since June 2021 so his views are clearly significant. As part of the discussion he stated very clearly

I’m a Unionist, why would I be under a moral obligation to implement an arrangement that harms my place within the United Kingdom and indeed harms the good friday agreement itself? Article 1 of the Good Friday agreement, the Belfast agreement makes absolutely clear there should be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland without the consent of its people.

Of course a very clear element of what he has referred to is that the fact that the Northern Ireland residents voted to remain in the EU by 55.78% to 44.22% around about 64%. However his comment was in the context of what has been set out by the UK Government in an agreement with the EU and he is very unhappy with it. So his call for the consent of the Northern Ireland people clearly needs to be set out in a new referendum or some alternative proposal that so far he has not set out!

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Could Peter Bottomley consider levelling up?

This week appears to be rather quiet in terms of politics as several of the parties have carried out their annual conferences and the others seem not due to do so for several weeks. Yet the House of Commons is not due to reopen until next Monday. Despite this there have been several issues that have arisen here in Sussex and elsewhere involving politicians and other groups of people. These themes could potentially inspire some of our politicians to raise the subjects next week in Parliament. A week ago, a speech took place in Northern Ireland that is very relevant for the whole of the UK and should raise concerns by many politicians who understand the hard work by charities, faith groups and businesses. The statement was from Ciara Ferguson who is a Sinn Fein Member of the Legislative Assembly. Before she was elected as MLA she was a community development worker which explains the effectiveness of her statement. Although she was speaking about what is happening in Foyle, these words apply to the rest of the UK.

The additional £20 a week applied to universal credit and working tax credit as part of the response to the COVID crisis was required long before the pandemic began. Like community workers, social workers, welfare rights workers and teachers, I am fully aware that most people could never make their universal credit last, let alone without a further £80 a month. As in many other constituencies across the North, my constituency has seen the number of food banks rise for well over a decade. Since 2010, in the outer north area of the city, where I worked for 20 years, we have been working closely with the four Churches and the Churches Trust to provide food parcels to our most vulnerable. In the past five or six years, we have been inundated with support for our communities and our food banks from organisations such as FareShare, Barnardo’s and Children in Need and from local businesses. Moreover, every year for the past six or seven years, most of the communities in which I work in the North have seen the reality of holiday hunger. Poverty and child poverty rates, particularly in my Foyle constituency, where poverty levels are already among the highest in the North, have increased and will continue to increase.

It would be fantastic if our MPs could adopt these words in a weeks time so that our Parliament can reflect on what happened in the middle of last week when the £20 a week was removed by the Government from Universal Credit recipients. Perhaps that could be brought alongside the call by Peter Bottomley a few days ago for MPs to receive a rise of around 25% for their wages. This would involve a £12 Million increase to the MPs and presumably we will need to pay more than that because of the impact on tax from the Parliamentary employment system. Whilst that same fund would only benefit 12 thousand people who currently receive Universal Credit if it was used to reverse the £20 a week reduction it does seem reasonable for the two themes to be discussed by the same people. As it happens another theme that is being planned for next Monday by some of the local faith communities has relevance for Parliament.

The event that is planned for next Monday evening is being coordinated by the Church of England and Roman Catholic Church both of which that cover Sussex as a whole. The event is taking place in the evening at 6pm and it is entitled Modern Slavery Ambassadors Launch event that is taking place at a Catholic Church in Horsham. As they have stated in one of their documents

It is estimated that over 40 million men, women, and children are trapped in modern slavery today

and that they are working

to establish a network of Modern Slavery Ambassadors able to raise awareness of the practice of Modern Slavery to people and church congregations across East and West Sussex.

It would be fantastic if this approach which is recognised by other faith groups, charities and  a wide range of businesses could be raised by our MPs. As it happens there is a page on the Government website that is entitled UK Parliament’s Modern Slavery Programme which states that The UK Parliament is committed to tackling modern slavery and human trafficking. However, they go on to explain about their steps that took place to prevent slavery and human trafficking between 1 April 2020 – 31 March 2021 and that

We’ve set ourselves goals at the end of the statement and we will update on progress in our next statement in 2022. 

Let us hope that the Politicians can become a bit more dynamic than simply making statements occasionally.

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