Monthly updates from Laura Farris
MP for Newbury
Welcome from Laura
As I write, news has just reached us that we are entering a second national lockdown from 5 November 2020.
This was not what I wanted nor was it the outcome that I (and other colleagues) have worked to avoid.
However, I’d like to set out the rationale for this decision and for the Prime Minister’s departure from the tiered regional system that was already in operation. On Sunday 1 November I had a call with Matt Hancock, Jenny Harries (the Deputy Chief Medical Officer) and Stephen Powis (the Director of NHS England).
It remains the case that the rate of infection is low in West Berkshire (at 89.1 per 100,000) and across the South East. In fact, the South East and South West are the two areas with the lowest overall infection rates in the UK. However, these areas are the key drivers behind the national decision. Why? Well the evidence shows that the rate of infection is rising here at the fastest rate overall. If left unchecked, it will be a few short weeks before we are seeing the kind of exponential growth that could overwhelm local hospitals and ICU wards.
Whilst the tier system was showing some success in other parts of the country – notably the North-East, the rates were falling slower there than they were rising in areas like ours. Further adjustments to the tier system were not going to work. Therefore, a short national lockdown has been considered the only way to bring this into check.
I know how disappointing and even damaging this may be to some of you and I want to give you reassurances that I will be arguing for this to be brought to an end as soon as possible.
However, there are three positives to which I would draw your attention:
- First, a clear advantage of halting the virus in West Berkshire is that it is much less likely to cause significant hospitalisations in the coming months. This means that other important diseases – like cancer – can receive prompt treatment in the usual way. Also elective surgeries – such as hip replacement operations – which were often postponed in the first part of this year can go ahead. I am determined the other critical health services will not be many of you have written powerfully about the imperative to ensure that other conditions are treated with the urgency they deserve. I believe that this short lockdown will enable this.
- Second, the Chancellor has begun announcing a raft of further financial support for the month ahead starting with the reinstatement of the furlough scheme, grants for any business that is forced to close and mortgage holidays. More is likely to follow for those who are self-employed. I will continue to ensure that those who lose income will be adequately supported.
- Finally, there are a number of announcements and recent developments from which you should draw encouragement. The Government has begun the rollout of ‘15-minute tests’ to hospitals and care homes with more to follow. When these are in widespread circulation, they will have a dramatic effect on our ability to live freely and track the disease. Further a number of vaccines are in the final stages of trial with a very decent prospect that one will be on the market in early 2021. I am extremely hopeful that steps like these mean the issue of another lockdown will not arise in the future.
I attach here the link with further information and more details of some of the questions you have been asking me. My priority remains constituents in any way I can and, as ever, please do not hesitate to contact me at Laura.Farris.MP@parliament.uk
News from Westminster:
Negotiations with the European Union regarding a Free Trade Agreement are now at a critical stage. As you will be aware, there have been bumps in the road however I attended a meeting two weeks ago with a member of the No. 10 negotiating team and genuinely believe that there is a collective will and determination now to reach an agreement and hope we will get there in the coming weeks.
The Agriculture Bill has also reached its final stages in Parliament – a crucial piece of legislation that will redefine the landscape of British farming and create a public subsidy system for environmental improvement and public use of land. I understand that the concerns that were expressed about the safeguards in the Bill for animal welfare and securing high standards in any future trade deals and took these directly to George Eustice the Secretary of State. I want to reassure you that today, the Government has committed to placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission (comprising many farmers and representatives from the National Farmers Union) on a statutory footing who will scrutinize any future trade deal, and then report to Parliament before a final vote. NFU President, Minette Batters, welcomed this, saying: “This significant commitment to primary legislation on food standards both in the Agriculture Bill and Trade Bill is exactly what we have been calling for. It is a landmark moment for the people of the UK for our countryside and the future of the food on our plates.”
In some excellent news for West Berkshire, Highways England published its 5-year plan at the end of September which includes significant funding for improvements to the A34. Richard Benyon undertook extensive work on this issue whilst he was in office and I have conducted a residents survey and written to Highways England stressing the urgent need to improve the dangerous junctions and sections of the road – including at East Ilsley, Beedon and Speen – which contribute to the horrific accidents we see.
Finally, after making many requests, some of West Berkshire’s best-loved cultural venues including the Corn Exchange, received funding from the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund worth a combined total of over £1 million. The recipients were vital to our local heritage and I am so glad that this support was delivered to ensure their survival. This funding is on top of grants made in the summer to smaller cultural settings from dance companies to visual artists.
Finally, in September and October, I have made a number of appearances and speeches in the House:
- A speech in the House on support for horse racing at Lambourn and the continued challenges facing arts venues such as the Corn Exchange and Watermill and local newspapers, particularly the much-loved Newbury Weekly News (watch here).
- A question about financial support for West Berkshire’s nurseries to the Department for Education (watch here).
- A speech in Westminster Hall on Maternity provision during Covid-19 (watch here).
- A question to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on the ‘fire and rehire’ employment practice (watch here).
- A speech on the Government’s legal aid review and the importance of access to justice and support for the criminal legal aid lawyers (watch here).
- A speech on prohibiting the administration of “Botox” on under 18-year olds. (watch here).
- A question to the Lord Chancellor about the Government’s approach to tackling the cycle of crime in his recently published White Paper (watch here).
In the Constituency:
I have spent time in the constituency over recent weeks visiting schools, businesses, charities and supporting local groups.
At the very start of October, I held a surgery for residents in Hungerford Town Hall before visiting the youth centre, primary school and joining the “Smarten Up Hungerford” team for some planting at the Tragedy Garden.
I also held meetings with the West Berkshire Economic Development Forum, the Newbury Business Improvement District and the team Newbury Parkway to discuss how we can redevelop and improve the town centre. With retail under pressure like never before, the departure of significant favourites like John Lewis and approximately 20% of retail space now lying vacant we are going to need an innovative approach. I think there are opportunities for adding work-spaces, residential properties, and more family-friendly activities in a comprehensive overhaul of the town centre and attach my recent article on this for the Newbury Weekly News, which you can read here.
I also recently joined the Canal & River Trust and Action on the River Kennet (ARK) to discuss the health of our canals, rivers and chalk streams. I am also supporting ARK in a bid to secure funding from the Government’s new Green Recovery Fund, which could result in substantial funds to improve and enhance our chalk streams.
Finally, I visited Park House to speak to their Sixth Formers about life as an MP – for a grilling every bit as tough as Paxman's Newsnight!