IDS of March

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I am sad that Iain Duncan Smith has resigned. His passion for social justice has been an inspiration to my Party and to many who have nothing to do with politics. I have worked with his Centre for Social Justice and have seen at first-hand Iain’s vision for improving the lives of the vulnerable and needy. I hope he can continue to influence social policy so that this Government can continue the radical societal change it has started. Iain understands that existing on welfare is the worst situation for anyone. He set about changes that encourage people back to work and address the many problems that contribute to the need for benefits in the first place. He understands that many small local charities are a hundred times better at getting someone off alcohol dependency or drug addiction than the state. He has set in train a more balanced welfare system that can provide the flexibility for the many complicated human challenges that exist in society.
The media is obsessed as usual with the personality side of resignations: who said what to whom and what A really thinks of B. While some are titillated by such relative trivialities, most of us know from our jobs that people do move on. Big deal. What is important is that the Government reboots its programme for Government. I absolutely support the moral case for deficit reduction. If we fail on this we lumber future generations with an economic mill stone round the necks of each household. But we need to do this in a way that protects those who have been dealt a rough hand in life and by recognising that big challenges lie ahead. In a decade many jobs now done by humans will be done by robotics or algorithmic computer programmes. We need to prepare for this extraordinary revolution and recognise the impact it will have on both blue and white collar workers. We must also challenge the perception put about by some that life is getting worse. In the last five years child poverty has fallen, the gender pay gap has never been smaller and the richest 1% pay 28% of the income tax take. Binge drinking, teenage pregnancies and crime are down and yes, we are spending more than ever on benefits for those with disabilities.

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Ending homelessness

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Last week I attended the inaugural meeting of the new All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Ending Homelessness. APPGs exist on all kinds of issues but this one attracted my attention for the bold ambition in its name. Many would say that ending homelessness is an unachievable ambition. But if you want to end a deep cause of misery you need to aim high.

There are currently about 2,750 people sleeping rough in England every night. The number of people in temporary accommodation is around 68,500 and the number of statutory homeless is about 53,500. Many are surprised at the number of rough sleepers with most guessing that it would be much higher than that figure. Of course these numbers fluctuate but if you, like me, feel a sense of society’s failure when you see a huddled figure sleeping in a doorway, this is a problem that needs nailing. If the fifth largest economy in the world can’t deal with two or three thousand rough sleepers then what can we do?

Tackling the reasons for homelessness is at the heart of new initiatives coming from organisations like The Centre for Social Justice and Crisis. Single homeless people are likely to have faced considerable challenges in their lives, 64% have been unemployed, 49% have suffered from poor mental health, 48% from drug dependency, 46% from alcohol dependency, and 41% have spent time in prison. About a fifth have suffered domestic abuse, about a quarter spent time in care as a child, and about a sixth have literacy problems.  Tellingly, around 80% have a least one support issue, while more than half had faced four or more.

In West Berkshire we have wonderful organisations like Loose Ends which provide meals, clothes and advice for rough sleepers. There is the Two Saints hostel that does much more than just provide beds. These bodies are invaluable but they would be the first to agree that they are not able to provide the means to end most cases of homelessness. This requires a holistic approach to tackling all the factors in each homeless person’s life. We have to see what works well in communities in Britain and around the world and roll that out across the country. This will mean money and determination and the kind of high ambition that wants to end the problem for good. 

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On Saturday I joined teams of volunteers in Newbury and Stanford Dingley to pick up litter. Clean for the Queen is a national campaign and a wonderfully practical way to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday. Britain is getting a spring clean from John O’Groats to Lands End. The team I was with in Victoria Park had gathered several sacks full in a few minutes. Stanford Dingley is one of the most picture postcard perfect English villages, but even there volunteers gathered about two dozen bags of rubbish. Anyone who has followed my scribblings will know I have an aversion to litter. The worst areas seem to be alongside our main roads.  Just who is chucking their detritus over our green and pleasant land? Who are you? We want you behind bars! And don’t get me started on fly tippers.

We have vast expensive electric signs on our motorways to warn us of hazards ahead. Most of the time they boss us with banal statements about not driving when tired or about keeping a distance from the car in front. I might suggest to the Highways Agency that these signs say, “If you throw litter out of your car window you will be nicked”. Of course this means we have to prosecute litterers not just ignore this anti-social crime.

Bizarrely I was pursued around Newbury by half a dozen protestors who seemed to be, among other things, outraged that litter was being picked by volunteers not paid Council workers. Of course Council workers do pick litter but we would need hundreds more to cope with the depressing use-it-then-chuck-it culture. As someone who has voluntarily picked litter most of my life I am truly amazed at the mind-set that says everything has to be done by the state. Perhaps these protestors also believe that those who volunteer to drive the sick to hospital are stealing work from the NHS or that community flood wardens should be full time Environment Agency staff.

Anyway Ma’am, we have made a start. Similar litter picks are planned for Hungerford, Thatcham and many villages and I congratulate all who get involved with this worthy cause.

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Richard Benyon was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Newbury on 7 May 2015, with an increased majority of 26,368. Richard won 61 per cent of the vote share.



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