Saturday, 27 January 2007

Raising the profile of homelessness

The alarm went off at 5am this morning so I could get to Gloucester by 6am for the final session of 'Insomnia 2007' - an event organised by the Diocese of Gloucester to highlight the issues of homelessness at home and abroad. Having felt quite virtuous at getting up so early to do this, I soon felt more like a fraud when I joined about 200 teenagers who had been up all night in the cathedral. The event was partly about raising funds for homelessness projects, but also about raising awareness, especially for the Bishop, two other MPs and two council chief executives who spent the night sleeping (or not sleeping) under cardboard.

One of the things that never ceases to surprise me is how often housing issues feature in my constituency surgery. Rarely a week goes by without someone coming in who is threatened with homelessness, perhaps becuase their tenancy agreement is coming to an end, or perhaps because of relationship breakdown. High house prices and high rents make it very difficult for many people to get secure accommodation in our area, and the lack of affordable housing is something I have repeatedly raised at Westminster.

There is some sign of progress, not least as the council strives to ensure that 1 in 3 of the thousands of new homes we will be getting in our area is an affordable rented home, but it will take many years before we have a better balance between the supply of affordable homes and the local demand for them.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

Government washes its hands over trains fiasco

A 90 minute debate this morning at Westminster gave MPs from a large part of Southern England chance to vent their anger about the failures of First Great Western in providing decent commuter services. MPs from Wantage, Oxford, Romsey, Plymouth, Bath, Bristol, Cornwall and Newbury all told horror stories about their local services - as one MP put it, people are now standing "three to a toilet" on some services, and second class tickets are now known as 'standing class' tickets. The recent rail protest issued fake tickets with the destination "Hell and back".

The way I see it, FGW management have clearly made a mess of things. They say the new rolling stock they took over from the Wessex services was unreliable - so how come the Wessex services ran a full timetable in the weeks leading up to the changeover? They say their new maintenance depot in Bristol isn't fully ready - but whose fault is that? They claim that enough carriages are 'not available' - when there are unused carriages sitting in sidings.

The truth seems to be that FGW bid over the odds for the franchise. They don't appear to be able to hit their own profit targets and at the same time provide a quality rail service. But the Government needs to take a share of responsibility. They set out the specification of rail services that bidders would have to provide, and this was clearly inadequate. And they set up the rules which give rolling stock companies a monopoly in supplying train carriages so that they can charge the earth - which makes it all the harder for operators like FGW to have extra capacity in case of rolling stock failure.

All in all it is a sorry tale. Most depressing of all was that at the end of the debate, the minister said he could see no point sitting round a table with MPs of all parties, FGW and Network Rail - basically because he accepted no responsibility for the problem. The sound of hands being washed of the whole problem was clear to all to hear.

Monday, 22 January 2007

Yet more NHS reform

Tonight at 10pm we vote on a new local government bill which, among other things, abolishes the Patient and Public Involvement Forums which are supposed to provide some local accountability in the NHS. But these PPIFs were only created a few years ago as the replacement for Community Health Councils which had just been abolished. Now we are going to have yet another set- up - LINKs or "local involvement networks" - to provide local public involvement with the NHS. You have to wonder how long it will be before these are also abolished!

Not only does all this change take a huge amount of time and money, but it must demoralise the very members of the public and patients on whom the whole process depends. If you were on a CHC and then got involved in a PPIF, would you real want to be part of LINK??

I'm thinking of standing at the next election on a platform of "vote for me and I'll leave things alone for a while" - what do you reckon?

Friday, 19 January 2007

What a crazy way to make laws!

It's an unusual Friday. Normally, like most MPs, I'm in the constituency, holding surgeries, catching up on correspondence and attending to the local end of what I do. But today, I've returned to Westminster (set the alarm for 0530 to make sure First Great Western couldn't stop me) to support the 'Sustainable Communities Bill' - a worthwhile piece of legislation that will gove more power to local communities over the decisions that affect them.

What is different about this Bill is that it is a 'Private Member's Bill' - not promoted by a Government minister but by an individual MP (in this case, Conservative MP Nick Hurd) who came out of the ballot before Christmas. The bizarre way these bills are handled means that opponents of private member's bills have the upper hand. One thing they can do is simply talk and talk. Unless there are enough MPs present, they can block the Bill.

That is what happened today. In over 4 hours of debate, just 10 MPs spoke, and one of those took over an hour. Having started at 0930, at 1345 a vote was called on a 'closure motion' - basically a vote to stop the stalling. That was comfortably won, and so the Bill now proceeds to its next stage. There was not actually a vote on the substance of the Bill itself.

In short, over 200 MPs were at Westminster not because they would have any chance to speak in the debate, or even to vote for or against the Bill, but simply to provide the body count that is needed to stop people waffling. Who says Parliamentary reform is not needed??

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

My 3 minutes of fame

Political anoraks will know that Channel 4 don't broadcast party political broadcasts in the same way as the other channels. But they do from time to time broadcast a 'political slot' just after Channel 4 News. I did one of these very short programmes (about 3 minutes of air time) a few years back on the issue of justice in women's pensions, and my office was swamped with feedback. We probably had over 1000 letters.

Tomorrow I'm recording another programme, this time based in my constituency. It's going to be about MPs using e-mail to keep in touch with constituents. I'm going to be highlighting the fact that whilst lots of young people don't vote (3 out of 5 under 25s at the last election), almost all young people text/e-mail/do things on the internet that I'm too old to understand. I'll be explaining how I consult over 5,000 of my constituents by e-mail from time to time (sign up on my website - www.stevewebb.org.uk - if you live in Northavon!) and will also be interviewing three members of the group, including a teenager and a local resident in her eighties.

I don't yet know when it will be broadcast, but I'm told a million people might see it - mainly people who forgot to turn over after Channel 4 news or who've turned over early for the next programme. I won't let the fame go to my head!

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Bankrupt hospital - part II

My discovery that North Bristol Trust is £100m in the red has created something of a stir! BBC Points West asked the Department of Health for a response last night, and they said they had "no current plans" to write off any of the debt, although North Bristol Trust are clearly hoping for a different outcome. What is extraordinary is that the Government is actually not telling NHS Trusts whether or not it will write off any of this historic debt - which makes it impossible for them to plan for the long term. In particular, how can you judge whether or not to enter into a long-term PFI contract to build a new hospital if you don't know whether or not you will have to service a £100m debt?! I will be pressing for a swift resolution to this issue, and for a serious write-off, conditional on assurances that NBT have now got their finances in order.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

Is our local hospital bust?

Shortly before Christmas our local North Bristol NHS Trust had its application to become a semi-independent "Foundation Trust" turned down. This was a bit of a surprise as the Government plan is for every hospital trust to be a Foundation Trust by the end of next year. I tabled a Parliamentary Question (PQ) to ask for a copy of the letter that the Trust was sent to explain why they had been turned down, and today I got the answer - which was dynamite! The letter reveals that:
  • North Bristol Trust has run up a £100m debt and is being expected to pay it back;
  • the regional "Strategic Health Authority" actually opposed North Bristol's bid, on the basis that the cost of servicing this debt plus the new PFI debt when they re-build Southmead Hospital, will be too much to cope with.

This is pretty worrying if you care about local health services. Assuming they go ahead with their big PFI plan, they will have two lots of debts to pay off - so what will they have to cut to balance the books?

Friday, 5 January 2007

Better train services - but not yet!

An interesting meeting this afternoon with a manager for First Great Western. The company took over the local train services around Bristol in December and it's been a shambles so far. Trains have been cancelled with no notice or turn up with too few carriages leaving people standing in the loos in some cases! I've been told this afternoon that these teething problems should be over in a week - so we'll see if the volume of complaints drops off.

On a more positive note, there are plans to improve the major local station - Bristol Parkway - with two additional platforms (I'd only heard about one before), and in the very long-term the frequency of the service from Yate could improve by allowing trains to turn back at Yate. In the shorter term First Great Western are buying new engines which are quieter and greener, which is good news, and are also going to upgrade the insides of the trains with things like power sockets - which will be very welcome. So, we may be "on track" for better services, but they won't be cheap, and patience will still be required...

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

First Thoughts

I've finally given in! For some years I've been actively exchanging e-mails with thousands of my Northavon constituents, asking for their views and hearing what they have to say. But it's taken me until now to give in to becoming a blogger. I've been inspired by some of my colleagues who have been blogging for some time (notably Lynne Featherstone MP - http://www.lynnefeatherstone.org/blog.htm) and I hope to use this online diary to let you know when interesting things happen in my work as an MP or when I just want to get something off my chest. I've no idea whether I have an "inner blogger", but New Year 2007 seemed like a good time to find out!