Advice on reclaiming money owed by energy companies

December 16, 2014

The UK’s major energy suppliers – British Gas, EDF Energy, E.ON, Npower, SSE, and Scottish Power – have launched a nationwide campaign to help reunite customers with money owed to them by their former energy supplier. The ‘My Energy Credit’ campaign aims to hand back repayments of around £50 to approximately 3 million energy consumers. The credit has typically been left behind by customers who have moved address, switched supplier, or left unclaimed credit when closing the estate of a relative who has passed away.

Energy UK, the trade association for the energy industry, is coordinating the public awareness campaign that targets energy consumers across the country. It aims to spread awareness about money that might be owed to them by their previous energy supplier, and makes it easier for consumers to check whether they are owed money or not. Customers can apply for their credit repayment regardless of when the account was closed as long as there is proof that they were a former customer. Running in parallel to the ‘My Energy Credit’ campaign, the member companies are stepping up their own efforts to reunite customers with their cash by reviewing their records and employing search agencies.

Customers can claim credit repayments by telephone (0370 737 7770), post (Freepost RTHL-ZYBU-KBCC, My Energy Credit, 47 Aylesbury Road, Thame, OX9 3PG ), or the website.

Panshanger Park wildlife trail

December 15, 2014

I am pleased to see that the new wildlife trail at Panshanger Park is now open to the public. The 185-metre trail is in the south-east corner of the park, at the eastern end of Osprey Lake, and is within the environmentally-sensitive nature reserve area of the site.

The project has been part-funded by Natural England and forms part of a three-year landscape-scale project, involving partners from, and improvement works to, places across the whole of the River Lea catchment area. The newly constructed trail will provide visitors with a new opportunity to view the wildlife at Osprey Lake, and next summer will give them close-up views of the dragonflies which live in the adjacent wetlands.

This is an impressive project, and I hope to pay a visit soon.

Good news about David Cameron’s announcements today at the #WeProtectChildrenOnline Summit

December 11, 2014

I am pleased to hear that David Cameron is going to announce the introduction of a further package of measures today designed to tackle online child abuse. In his speech which he is delivering to the #WeProtectChildrenOnline summit he will announce the creation of a joint National Crime Agency and Government Communications Headquarters specialist unit which will look at the most serious cases of online child exploitation.

Increasingly paedophiles have been found to be using the “dark web” where is more difficult for investigators to penetrate and they have also become more sophisticated about covering their tracks online. This new unit using ground-breaking technology will be able to uncover even the most devious perpetrators of these horrific online crimes against children.

I understand the major internet search engines (Microsoft, Google and Yahoo) and social media sites (Facebook and Twitter) have committed to using hashing technology which identifies the hash values (digital fingerprints) of images and videos depicting child abuse and using this will block their distribution so that they cannot be shared online. Likewise Microsoft, Google and Mozilla are to investigate the possibility of introducing browser level blocking restrictions so that people will not be able to search and view known child abuse material online.

These are all very positive developments and I am extremely glad that the Prime Minister is taking online child abuse so seriously. The online exploitation of children is despicable and we must do all that we can to ensure it is stamped out as far as possible.

Infrastructure Bill

December 10, 2014

On Monday, the House of Commons held the Second Reading of the Infrastructure Bill. It is described as a ‘portmanteau Bill’ as it covers a wide range of different topics. However, as strategic road infrastructure – one of the Bill’ primary concerns – is very important to North-East Hertfordshire, I would like to explain what effects this Bill will have on our major roads.

The upkeep and improvement of our highways is central to keeping Hertfordshire as economically successful as it is now. Our highways link us to London, to Stanstead and Luton airports, and to the soon-to-be “Northern Powerhouse”. However, the Highways Agency is unable to manage our roads as effectively as we need, and, over the last 20 years, we have seen a major underfunding and mismanagement of our roads.

The highways managed by the Highways Agency account for only 2% of all roads in England by length, but they carry a third of all traffic by mileage, and two thirds of all heavy goods traffic. As the Highways Agency itself says, these roads are the “economic backbone of the country”. They must be well-managed. The railways have long undergone long-term, five-year investment plans, but the roads have not. This Bill will bring long-term planning to our road network.

The provisions in Part 1 of the Bill would transform the Highways Agency from an agency of the Department for Transport into a government-owned Strategic Highways Company. This will allow for a much more long-term and business-like approach to the management of our roads. One point in particular struck me: the current arrangements force the Highways Agency to follow government budget rules, which prevent unspent budgets being carried over to the next year. This compels the Highways Agency to spend for the sake of spending in February and March in order to prevent budget cuts in the next financial year, and it does not allow for the Agency to “save-up” for major investments in a few years’ time. The House must surely see that this is not how something as important to our country as its strategic road network should be managed.
Government rules are made for administrators, but the body that controls our truck roads cannot simply be an administrator. In order to provide the roads that this country needs, it must have the vision, imagination, and the resources to manage a long-term, cost-effective, and successful roads programme. This greater level of independence from government guidelines can provide this.

However, although the Highways Agency must, in one way, be given more independence from government, in another way it must be made more accountable to it. The provisions for Road Investment Strategies will allow for just this. Binding directives for long-term targets from the Transport Secretary will make the running of our highways more accountable to the representatives of the British people, but will allow for greater day-to-day autonomy and flexibility in the execution of these directives.

In the Government’s first Road Investment Strategy – published last week – Hertfordshire was granted funding for the widening of the A1(M) from Welwyn to Stevenage, following a long campaign on the matter from me and other Hertfordshire MPs. This will allow the A1(M) to flow much more freely, and make it easier for workers to get to their employment, get their products to the market, and life will also be made easier for local residents.

One of the main reasons why we managed to win this funding was the state of Junction 7. The A1(M) is known for its long queues and tailback every morning and evening, and Junction 7 is one of the worst areas for this problem, and has been so for 25 years. Junction 7 is also the junction for the Stevenage industrial area, which is the home to major companies like GSK. Research done by the Hertfordshire Chamber of Commerce which found that a number of businesses in and around Stevenage had suggested that if their access to Stevenage was not remedied, then this might prompt their relocation. This, of course would be a terrible blow to a county which provides an annual net contribution to the UK of £4 billion and is one of the powerhouses of the British economy.

This illustrates the importance of long-term planning for our trunk roads, and the improvements to our ability to do this is one of my primary reasons for supporting this Bill. To change the Highways Agency in to a government-owned Strategic Highways Company, directed by Road Investment Strategies, will allow problems to be dealt with much faster than the quarter of a century that this one has taken. This Government’s first Road Investment Strategy is a huge investment that is greatly needed.

I am also heartened by the provisions of Section 3 which commit the Secretary of State and the Strategic Highways Company to take account of the environmental and road-safety issues when drawing up and executing a Road Investment Strategy. Britain has some of the safest roads in the world, but anything to ensure that the safety of the British people on their roads remains a central concern in roads planning is very welcome. As for the environment, with the current state of the chalk streams in my constituency, I am all too aware of the damage that human activity can have on local wildlife, and I am glad that this Bill will ensure that future road investment is implemented with full sensitivity to local nature.

As a country, our infrastructure must be able to keep up with increases in population and international competition. If we do not, then we fall behind in the global race. As the rest of Europe – our main market – suffers economic decline, this task becomes ever more difficult, and so it becomes ever more vital that we have a world-class road network. Two-thirds of all our heavy goods traffic runs on these roads, and it is imperative that they can get their workers in, and their products out, as quickly, cheaply and efficiently as possible.

This Bill gives the people who manage our strategic highways greater autonomy, flexibility, and day-to-day freedom to carry out their duties. It gives the representatives of the British people a greater level of control over the targets and priorities of our highways. It gives road safety and environmental issues a higher level of importance than ever before. It gives the British people themselves a greater level of influence over the administration of their roads, and it holds the Strategic Roads Company accountable to an external assessor.

It passed the vote 276-10, and now goes to a Committee for line-by-line scrutiny.

This Bill represents a real advance in the way our most important roads are managed, and I am happy to support it.

The Autumn Statement

December 4, 2014

Yesterday, the Chancellor delivered his Autumn Statement – his last before the General Election. For those listening, it seemed like one bit of good news after another. This Government has put our economy back on the right track, following the mess that it inherited. I would like to go through some of the most ways in which our economy is now faring better, and then have a look at some of the new announcements that the Chancellor made.

When this Government took office, the deficit was the most immediate danger that our economy faced, but Conservatives’ fiscal discipline and tough decisions have paid off. The deficit is falling from £98 billion last year to £91 billion this year, just as it has fallen in every year of this Government’s administration. It is forecast that the deficit will be eliminated altogether by 2018/19, taking the UK, after so many years, out of the red and back into the black.

The confidence in the market that this discipline has brought has been good for jobs. Last year, the number of people unemployed fell by 538,000 – which was the biggest annual fall ever recorded – and a similar number is forecast for this year.

For those in work, the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts that ‘meaningful wage growth’ will pick up next year and grow above inflation for the next five years. Inflation forecasts are significantly revised down to 1.5% this year and 1.2% next year. This means that people’s wage increases will actually be increases in real terms. As well as this, the economy will grow by 3% this year, which is the highest rate of growth in the G7.

Along with this good news, the statement set out some of the Government’s future economic plans, many of which are of particular interest to North-East Hertfordshire.

The first of these is the reform of stamp duty which has just taken effect. The changes have ended the old system of the ‘slab’ tax – whereby an amount was calculated on the total value of a home – and introduced a ‘slice’ system, where different levels of tax are paid on portions of a home’s value that fall within certain bands – just like income tax. This will result in a tax cut for 98% of stamp duty payers, with the average family home of £275,000 benefiting from a cut of £4,500. The only homes that will be subject to a tax rise are the most expensive 2%.

With strong science-based industries in the constituency, the announcement that Government student loans of £10,000 will be available for those undertaking post-graduate Master’s degrees is particularly welcome. This will encourage many more people to take higher degrees, preparing more people for work in the high-skills industries.

With other measures like allowing ISAs that are passed to a partner after death to keep their tax-free status, abolishing National Insurance Contributions for employers who employ an apprentice under the age of 25, cutting Air Passenger Duty for children under the age of 12 – rising to 16 in 2016 – , introducing a new 25% tax on multinational companies that artificially divert profits abroad, continuing the doubling of Small Business Rate Relief, and continuing to cap the inflation-linked increase in business rates at 2%, this was a strong and positive Autumn Statement. It showed how far the economy has come since Labour’s crash, and how Conservatives in Government are implementing their Long-term Economic Plan, so that the recovery that they have secured can make life better for everyone.

International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls

December 2, 2014

We have recently observed International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls, and, as it is such an important issue, I am writing a blog post to explain the situation and what the Government is doing to remedy it.

Last year, 76 women were killed by partners or ex-partners. This is the lowest number since this data was recorded but it is still, of course, 76 too many. We know that the Crime Survey for England and Wales indicates that 1.2 million women were victims of domestic abuse last year and that over 300,000 were victims of sexual assault.

Domestically, the Government has provided funding of £40m over the next few years to provide a critical bedrock of support to victims, including an increase in rape support centres with funding for 86 rape centres across England and Wales.

Working with schools and addressing issues early on is absolutely vital. The Government has made provision of good quality teaching materials to schools to help to promote healthy relationships. Only by preventing violence and abuse in the first place can we hope to make sustainable changes over the long term. Ministers are also driving a culture change in the police response by ensuring the recommendations from Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary’s review into domestic abuse are acted upon and applied to all areas of violence against women and girls to promote a culture of victim belief.

As for legislation, since 2010, the Government has criminalised forced marriage, introduced new stalking laws, and rolled out Domestic Violence Protection Orders and the Domestic Violence Disclosure Scheme across the country, and is currently criminalising revenge pornography. They have also committed up to £25 million to scale up DFID’s work on child, early, and forced marriage in 12 priority countries, working closely with UNICEF.

The Government is also strengthening the law on female genital mutilation (FGM) in the ways I campaigned for as a Minister. In addition, the Department for International Development’s flagship programme to support the African movement to end FGM, with total funding of up to £35 million over five years, aims to see a of 30% in at least 10 countries in five years, with an ambition towards ending FGM in a generation. These are issues that I myself have recently raised with the Women and Equalities Minister in a Written Parliamentary Question which can be found here.

The Government is clear that their priority – the people to whom they are absolutely committed – is the victims and survivors of violence and abuse.

Whether victims of child abuse and exploitation, adult survivors of abuse, victims of domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, FGM, or forced marriage, they are determined to drive a culture change to support victims and survivors and to equip frontline services with the tools they need to tackle these crimes.