Madeleine Moon

Labour Candidate for Bridgend

This Week in Parliament, 14-17 March

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14th-17th March 2016

I spent this week in Washington DC on a House of Commons Defence Committee visit attending meetings with officials from the Pentagon and State Department, senior US politicians and British Embassy staff. Back in London, George Osborne's eighth Budget as Chancellor dominated political debate and exposed deep divisions in the Conservative Party.

 

 

 

MONDAY

First day of meetings in Washington

On Monday the Committee met with British Defence staff based in Washington, Defence Attache, Major General Richard Cripwell and Minister Defence Material, Steve McCarthy. We received a briefing on the bilateral defence relationship between the UK and the US and priorities for collaboration between the two countries. There was an emphasis placed on 'interoperability' which is defined as the ability for allies to act together coherently and effectively, sharing common facilities and information. In the briefing session that followed Ambassador Gerald Fierstine gave examples of where the US can work effectively with its allies in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria.

Later on, we visited the headquarters of the Department of Defense in the Pentagon on the south side of the city. Here we met with the military personnel charged with advising the Joint Chiefs of Staff on all operational planning in the context of reports that the US is considering enhancing its operational capability in Europe in order to deter Russian aggression. We also met with four Deputy Assistant Secretaries; their specialisms and portfolios included Russia, the Middle East and UK-US interoperability. Our final meeting of the day was with a senior defence advisor on the National Security Council, the President's principal forum for considering national security and foreign policy matters.
Questions to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions

Meanwhile in Westminster, Ian Duncan Smith and his ministerial team were fielding questions from MPs in the Commons Chamber. Tom Pursglove, the Conservative MP for Corby, asked the Government what support they were providing to redundant to steel workers to help them back into skilled work. The Minister for Employment, Priti Patel, referred to the support provided by the DWP 'rapid response service' and the Department's other networks. In January it was announced that up to 750 jobs would be cut at the TATA steel works in Port Talbot and process of working out where the cuts will fall is under way. 

 
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TUESDAY

US House Armed Services Committee meeting

On Tuesday morning we met with the Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee William 'Mac' Thornberry and Ranking Member Adam Smith. The Committee overseas all branches of the armed services in the US and has responsibility for authorising the activities of the Department of Defense. We then had lunch with Wilton Park USA, an international forum for strategic discussion. 
Questions to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills
 
Ian Lucas, the Labour MP for Wrexham, asked about the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on exports from our aerospace and automotive sectors. Mr Lucas expressed concern that leaving the EU could put jobs at risk at Toyota UK and Airbus UK in north-east Wales. Anna Soubry, the Minister for Small Business, Industry and Enterprise, offered her assessment:
 
It is a pleasure to agree with the hon. Gentleman, who might now become my hon. Friend on this matter. We are undoubtedly, as I have said, better remaining a member of the European Union, not just for the sake of the larger companies but because, as he rightly identifies, the effects extend all the way through the supply chains, which often encompass the smaller companies. I encourage him to urge the leader of the Labour party to make sure that it puts its full weight behind the “stronger in” campaign. He would be better off doing that than engaging with CND rallies.

Paula Sherriff, the Labour MP for Dewsbury, asked Edward Vaizey, the Minister for Culture and the Digital Economy, put the Government under pressure over poor broadband access. Ms Sherriff's compliant that the slow roll-out of super-fast broadband was damaging businesses in his constituency, was echoed by Cat Smith, the Labour MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood. She said that many of her 'rural and farming constituents' were unable to 'diversify' their businesses with current broadband speeds:

Frustrated with the wait for BT to deliver superfast broadband, many have been left in the position of digging their own trenches and working with Broadband 4 the Rural North to deliver superfast broadband so that they can run their businesses. What message does the Minister have for my constituents who have been left in this situation?

The Minister replied:

The hon. Lady makes an excellent point and I am pleased that her constituency will achieve levels of 96% broadband coverage. The point she makes, which I would like to emphasise to the Opposition spokeswoman, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), is why we have brought forward Labour’s target by two years. We have achieved by the end of 2015 what Labour planned to achieve by the end of 2017.
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WEDNESDAY

The 2016 Budget

Early on Wednesday afternoon, following PMQs, the Chancellor George Osborne delivered his eighth budget. See below for my synopsis of the provisions that will affect Wales.

Targets and Forecasts

Six months ago Mr Osborne set himself a debt reduction target; on Wednesday he conceded that, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility's forecasts, he will will miss it: 'debt as a percentage of GDP is above target and set to be higher in 2015-16 than the year before'. By failing to balance the books by 2015, Osborne failed to meet another key election commitment. The Government is set to borrow £38.5 billion more than Osborne planned in November last year and to reduce spending as a share of GDP with further cuts of up to £3.5 billion by 2020.

Under the Chancellor's management, the UK economy has not grown as he expected: estimated GDP growth in 2017 and 2018 has been revised down from 2.5% to 2.2% and 2.1%. The Chancellor situated the challenges confronting the UK economy in a wider global context. The global economy, he said, is 'materially weaker' following the financial and the UK is 'not immune to slowdowns and shocks'.

Sugar Tax

The Chancellor announced the introduction of a new sugar tax on the soft drinks industry. The tax will be introduced in two years time and the revenue it generates (expected to be £520 million a year) will be spent on funding for primary school sport in England only. The tax comes in the form of a levy on drinks with more than 5g of sugar per 100 ml; there will be a higher rate for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml. The policy was welcomed by Members on all sides of the House as an effective way of encouraging the industry to regulate sugar content and to tackle childhood obesity.

Personal Finances

The Chancellor announced that from April next year he will raise the tax-free personal allowance to £11,500 and claimed that 'the typical basic rate taxpayer will be paying over £1,000 less income tax than when we came into government five years ago'. Capital gains tax will also be cut from 28% to 20% and from 18% to 10% for basic rate taxpayers. All duties on spirits, beer and cider will be frozen and there will be inflation rises in duties on wine and other alcohol and a 2% above inflation rise in excise duties on tobacco. The Chancellor announced the introduction of a lifetime ISA to help people save for old age. Whilst we welcome support for savers, there are concerns about how the lifetime ISA will fit within the current pensions system.

Cut to Disability Benefits

Having set a cap on welfare spending prior to the Budget, the Chancellor plans to implement a further £1 billion cut in disability benefits. Under the plans 370,000 Personal Independence Payment claimants would lose an average of £3,500 a year, according to the Institute of Fiscal Studies. On Friday night, following widespread and public criticism of the proposals by Tory as well as Labour MPs, Ian Duncan Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, resign
ed his position in Government. Mr Duncan Smith set out his reasons for resignation in a letter to the Prime Minister:

I have for some time and rather reluctantly come to believe that the latest changes to benefits to the disabled and the context in which they’ve been made are a compromise too far. While they are defensible in narrow terms, given the continuing deficit, they are not defensible in the way they are placed within a Budget that benefits higher earning taxpayers.


Stephen Crabb will replace Mr Duncan Smith at the Department from Work and Pensions; Alan Cairns will replace Mr Crabb at the Wales Office.

Tolls on Severn River Crossing

The Chancellor has agree to cut the tolls on the Severn Bridge Crossing by half following a campaign led by the Labour MP for Newport East, Jessica Morden.  The current toll of £6.60 is expected to fall to around £3.30. This is welcome news for commuters and businesses in South Wales.
UK aircraft capability

In Washington we were briefed on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jet which will soon become operational in the RAF and the P-8 Boeing Maritime Patrol Aircraft, the MoD’s purchase of which was recently confirmed in the Strategic Defence and Spending Review.

 
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THURSDAY

Macur Review

On Thursday morning the Stephen Crabb, until Saturday morning the Secretary of State for Wales, updated the House on the Macur Review. In her report published on Thursday following long delays, Lady Justice Macur concluded that there was ‘no evidence’ of historical abuse by ‘nationally prominent individuals’ in former children’s homes in North Wales. Though the original Waterhouse inquiry into the allegations found evidence of widespread sexual and physical abuse, it was criticised for the narrow scope of its investigation. Lady Macur found ‘no reason to undermine the conclusions’ of the Waterhouse inquiry, ‘in respect of the nature and scale of abuse’. In her response in the House, the shadow Secretary of State, Nia Griffith, paid tribute to Ann Clwyd, the Labour MP for Cynon Valley, ‘who has campaigned tirelessly for the survivors even since these allegations came to light’.
British Embassy in Washington

We spent Thursday at the British Embassy in Washington. Having conducted an evidence session in the Embassy ballroom, we had lunch with Sir Kim Darroch, the British Ambassador to the US. We also met with Vago Muradian, the editor of a leading defence news publication, to discuss the coverage of defence news in the mainstream media. In the afternoon we met with John McCain, the former Republican presidential candidate and the current Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
 
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