Backing business

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Anyone who has been in business knows all too well the risks and uncertainties that come with it. Running a business, or working for yourself, often means taking a chance and putting your family’s livelihood on the line.

That is why it is vital that we as politicians do all we can to support those entrepreneurs who do take a risk. From farmers to florists to financial services, investment in our public services is underpinned by the growth and prosperity of our industries.

Since 2010, we have seen a steady growth of new companies in the UK. In 2010, there were 235,000, and in 2015, that figure stood at 383,000. The number of businesses opening their doors now outstrips the number closing them by the largest margin since records began. During 2016 over 9,000 new companies were formed in Berkshire, around 1,500 of these in West Berkshire.

Conservatives have been, and always will be, on the side of enterprise. In 2010 Corporation Tax was at 28%, and it will fall to 17% by 2020. This will be the lowest rate among major advanced economies and sends a clear signal that this country is open for business.

This is good news for businesses of all sizes, but equally welcome will be news on business rates. I have long campaigned for reform to the ratings system and the latest revaluation exposed flaws in how the system works. The Chancellor is right to commit to a review before the next round of valuations and I hope he and Sajid Javid look long and hard at how the Valuation Office Agency works.

But reviews take time, and small businesses also need practical help now. The Chancellor gave welcome support for the smallest businesses, for pubs, and for local authorities to use their discretion to help the most affected in their area. This will be welcome news for the riding schools in my constituency facing a 356% increase in their rates bills. The decision to freeze fuel duty for the eighth year running is particularly welcome for rural businesses in constituencies like mine, and worth £130 a year for the average driver.

However, working practices today are different, and our tax system needs to reflect this. The growth in the number of people who are self-employed is testament to the enterprising spirit of this country. But the lower National Insurance Contributions (NICs) that they pay is placing a heavier burden on those workers that are employed, to fund public services such as the NHS. And so, in my view, it would seem right and fair that the rate of Class 4 NICs paid by the self-employed is brought closer to the rate of Class 1 NICs paid by employees. As the Chancellor has now announced, this is going to be subject to review, along with ways to improve rights and protections for self-employed workers, including on issues like parental rights and maternity pay. Significant changes have already been made. The self-employed can now access the new State Pension, worth £1,800 a year more, and we are abolishing Class 2 National Insurance Contributions.
 
The lowest paid have rightly been prioritised in this Budget. The decision to increase the Personal Allowance to £11,500 will take 1.3 million low earners out of tax altogether. Taking all of these changes together, self-employed people with profits less than £32,900 would not have paid more.
 
More than 60% of people would actually have gained from the proposed changes to National Insurance. Almost half of the revenue raised is from the top 20% of earners, which is absolutely fair. Of course those with the broadest shoulders should always bear the heaviest burden. It is why a single adult working 35 hours a week on the National Living Wage will be over £1,000 better off by 2020. It is why the top 1% of earners in this country now pay 27% of its income tax.
 
Budgets are always controversial but for all the noise about NICs the totality of the measures have benefitted workers and businesses both across Britain and here in West Berkshire.
 

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Make Every Adult Matter

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I had an enthralling morning at West Berkshire Council’s offices last week meeting with a wide group of organisations and agencies to find an innovative approach to helping people with particular and complex needs. These are the multiple needs that often lie behind every case of homelessness. They include drug and alcohol abuse, relationship breakdown and mental illness.

Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) is a part lottery funded national organisation that combines charities working with substance abuse, homelessness and those in the criminal justice system. It brings together teams in areas like West Berkshire to focus like a laser beam on the few really challenging cases whose chaotic lives are in a spiral of decline. Beyond the compassion we should all feel for these people there is the cost. The cycle that takes them from rough sleeping to dependency on the NHS, to prison in a sort of revolving door of agencies means each case costs the taxpayer hundreds of thousands of pounds.

With leadership from the Council there is a groundswell of support in West Berkshire to help tackle homelessness and it’s good to see same level of care and concern amongst statutory bodies. Our local Police are particularly keen on this approach. They are often the first on the scene and they know the rough sleeping community well. The Council's housing team are also determined to make this work. Through their efforts many rough sleepers are found accommodation but, like all involved in this work, they find this hard-to-help group who need a more joined up approach.

Led by MEAM Local Network Manager George Garrad, we looked at the barriers which make it so difficult for these individuals to access help here in West Berkshire and then at possible solutions. Linda from a London drug and alcohol charity called Build on Belief, talked about her years on the streets and how she survived a 32 year drug habit. It was so powerful to hear how she felt then about 'the system' and how difficult it was to access help.

Good things that came out of the meeting: putting names to faces; networking - allowing people to see what else is out there; perhaps the start of a new way of working, more flexible, more immediate, more tailored to the complex issues that often lie behind cases of homelessness. Watch this space and contact me via http://richardbenyon.com if you want to be involved.

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Westminster diary

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Last weekend I was in Brussels for a meeting of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. This is a gathering of Parliamentarians from across the Alliance. I had the surreal experience of sharing the same hotel as Vice President Pence. The difference was that I didn’t have an entire floor to myself or the accompanying throng of about 200 aides, advisers and Secret Servicemen. Whilst I and my entourage of 1 person got around by bus or tube, he had a motorcade that included about 20 motorcycle outriders and an ambulance. On Monday we were heartened to hear that despite the new President’s rhetoric in the campaign, the administration is firmly in support of NATO and confirmation that the USA will continue to be a big player in the alliance.

Back at Westminster, on Tuesday I went along to the House of Lords to see the progress of the Bill which if passed will allow the Government to trigger Article 50 in order to leave the EU. Whenever I stand at the bar of the House (as MPs are allowed to do) I am struck by how much better their debates are as compared to the House of Commons. I am a supporter of reform of the House of Lords but we have to find a way of retaining the reasoned voices of experience who, helped by the fact that they are devoid of any Parliamentary ambition, speak from the heart with real knowledge and understanding of their subject.

On Friday I visited the Greenham Common Trust and New Greenham Park. Most people who are not from around here just remember Greenham Common for the controversies around the nuclear missile deployments in the 1980s. They are amazed to hear that the airbase was transferred to West Berkshire Council for £1 in the mid 1990s. Where once there were nuclear missiles, fences and an army of armed guards, today there are 800 acres of open access common land for local people to enjoy. In addition, the built part of the old airbase is managed as a highly profitable property venture but the money made is given away to local good causes. In the last 20 years the Trust has donated £37 million to over 1000 local good causes. Because of its scale it is able to make big donations such as the promised £1 million to the new cancer and dialysis centre at West Berkshire Hospital. As the Chief Executive Chris Boulton puts it, “I make money in the morning and give it away in the afternoon”. 

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Quite a week in Westminster

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On Monday we finished voting at about half past midnight. On these occasions the old lags deport themselves with a sort of macho chutzpa. “This is what it was like every night when I was new here,” they say. We were voting on the committee stage of the Bill to trigger Article 50. I thought long and hard about supporting a Labour amendment that would have resulted in a vote on any deal at a meaningful time in the process. This resulted in one of those “chats” with the Chief Whip. While our conversation was amicable there was that hint of menace that lurks in any office which has a tarantula on the desk (yes, really there is; his name is Cronus). In the end there was a concession that satisfied me and a number of potential rebels. There will be a vote in Parliament before any deal is signed and before there is a vote in the European Parliament. This seems to me to be the right level of scrutiny without making the position impossible for our negotiating team.

A few days earlier I addressed a gathering of business men and women from across the Thames Valley who were meeting at Vodafone’s HQ. Not to have talked about Brexit would have been like making the best man speech without mentioning the groom. So I did, but I tried to move the subject beyond the interminable politics of Brexit to the realities of it. The Thames Valley is an extraordinary corridor of success that in regional terms makes it one of the most exciting areas for business and innovation anywhere in the world. There is nervousness about what our exit from the EU actually means. But there is also continuing confidence. I was able to relate my experience of visiting the space industry catapult at Harwell a few days previously. Catapults are Government supported hubs for particular sectors where innovation and new ideas are pushed from the drawing board into the realities of our lives. I witnessed extraordinary new businesses which are transforming, or are about to transform, our lives. Solutions to healthcare, protecting our environment, improving food production were just some of the innovations that blew my mind. Many of these businesses are operating with companies and supply chains some of which are in the EU and some of which are not. It fills me with confidence for the future.

At the conclusion of the Bill last Wednesday there was a marathon voting session with about nine divisions. The Bill now goes to the Lords - and then the die will be cast.

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Being fair to our veterans

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I am a firm believer that our Armed Forces have to have the highest standards in how they conduct themselves in conflict. Having commanded men on operations I have seen at first-hand how they do just that. Indeed I would go further, I have seen young men remain calm amid provocation that would drive most people to uncontrolled violence. That is why having such professional armed forces is something of which we can all be proud.

Unfortunately an unpleasant industry has emerged in recent years where unscrupulous and politically motivated lawyers have used taxpayers' money to pursue veterans through a judicial process often long after they have left the military and decades after the incidents that are being investigated took place. The good news is that one of the worst of these lawyers, Phil Shiner, has been struck off and disgraced as a lawyer. He indulged in a systematic pursuit of members of the armed forces, past and present, lodging a staggering 2,470 criminal complaints. Most of these were done through a Government organisation called the Iraq Historic Abuse Team (Ihat). This organisation channelled funds through Mr Shiner’s law firm, even after his rule breaking had been reported to the solicitors' watchdog. 

At the same time there is a furious row in Parliament at the behaviour of another organisation. The Legacy Investigations Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are looking into killings that took place during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Whilst only 302 of the 3200 deaths in the troubles were attributed to the security forces there seems to be a priority given to these cases over the vast majority that were at the hands of terrorists. When grandfathers are taken from their homes just before Christmas and taken to Northern Ireland for hours of questioning under caution, we are justified in asking what is going on.

Both of these situations have a profound effect on the sense of fairness and decency that we see as hallmarks of our society. It is time we introduced a statute of limitations that means that both sides can move on from the past. In Ihat’s case I firmly believe that the organisation should be closed down and legitimate cases of military wrong doing should be passed on to the Royal Military Police. As part of their remit they should be required to apply common sense through an understanding of the stress and strain of combat.  We owe it to the veterans of the past and those in our armed services now and in the future, to get this right.

 

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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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