I would like to wish you a happy New Year and I hope you enjoyed a peaceful Christmas. The year has flown by with so much happening in our country and across the world.
I began 2018 by establishing the all-party group on the prevention of plastic waste. Plastic pollution at home and across the world has become a major issue with more and more people conscious of the damage it can cause. The group brings together likeminded MPs to lobby against plastic waste. We have held meetings with industry leaders, major supermarkets and have visited a ground-breaking plastics recycling facility. The group will continue to press government to do everything possible to reduce our reliance on single-use plastics and to promote sustainable alternatives.
One of the biggest issues of the year was the rail chaos endured by so many people served by the Thameslink and Northern service across the country in May. Our rail service was brought to its knees by the major timetable change that was brought in at the beginning of the summer. The botched delivery of the new timetable by Govia Thameslink, Network Rail and the Department for Transport was completely unacceptable. Access to commuter services between London and St Albans is vital for so many working people in our community. I met with Thameslink officials, Network Rail, Chris Grayling and other transport ministers countless times from May throughout the summer. Thankfully, services have resumed to a good level in recent months and we are starting to see the benefits of the new timetable.
St Albans gained considerably more services, especially at peak times under the new timetable. I have been pressing transport ministers for years to increase the number of seats and services between St Albans and London and I am glad that this is now being delivered. The roll out of Oyster to our area was a welcome announcement and something I had been championing for quite some time.
Going forward I still hope to see significant improvements in our rail service. Commuters pay a huge amount of money for their tickets and it is absolutely right that a top quality service is provided.
The Local Plan for our area continues to progress through the various stages required before it can be put into effect. As many of you will know, we have one of the oldest plans in the country. This failure to plan has resulted in a reduced number of new homes being built and this must be addressed. Young people want to be able to buy their own home and we must build more houses to help make that a reality.
Of the 12 sites being taken forward, I am delighted that the Radlett Rail Freight site is amongst them. I am firmly of the view that using the site for much needed housing is clearly now in the best interests of our community. I have been campaigning against this disastrous and out-dated plan for a Strategic Rail Freight Interchange on the site since I was first elected in 2005. I hope this land will now help our young people find the homes they need.
Gambling addiction and the negative impact it can have on a person’s well-being and their family has come to the fore in the last year. The Government’s move to limit the stake on fixed-odd betting terminals (FOBTs) to £2 will hopefully make an improvement. I do worry that people with gambling addiction may move to other games or applications to continue their gambling. That is why I have continued to campaign for restrictions on gambling advertising and the promotion of gambling on mobile phones. High street betting shops provide a safer place for people to gamble with the oversight of trained staff, if we close gambling shops and push more people to gamble at home on their phones without any supervision this could end up having a negative effect.
I was glad to see the major gambling companies agree a total ban on TV advertising during live sport in December. The sheer amount of gambling adverts has normalised gambling for many people and I have raised this with ministers often in the last year. Political pressure and public mood have definitely impacted on this decision and it is certainly a step in the right direction.
Funding for our schools is another major topic I have worked on this year. After holding a meeting with parents and teachers in St Albans I held a debate in parliament to express the worries and frustrations they all shared with me. Although the government are investing record levels of funding in our schools, the obligations of what is required of schools and teaching staff has increased dramatically. This has meant there is less money and resources available for the teaching of our children. I made the case to the Schools Minister and shared many of the messages I received from head teachers during the debate. Frankly, I was disappointed in the response I received. The Department for Education needs to do more and get more support from the Chancellor next year. This is something I will continue to put pressure on the government to deliver in 2019 in the next funding review.
Luton Airport continues to be an issue for many constituents, especially those living in northern St Albans. Concentrated noise and a growing number of flights have affected residents living under flight paths. I have been raising this matter with ministers and I will be holding a meeting with the Aviation Minister early in the New Year.
I have also been continuing my campaign for the rights and protections of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This is an issue very close to my heart after visiting the refugees in 2017. Kutupalong is now the world’s largest refugee camp with a population of around 700,000. To put that into perspective, that is about the size of the city of Glasgow.
I have held numerous debates, chaired meetings with MPs and ministers and written several articles on this issue. I hope that 2019 will bring fresh hope and optimism for the Rohingya. The Myanmar government must provide the rights that the Rohingya require to return home safely to Rakhine state and there needs to be accountability and justice against the Burmese military who carried out the heinous crimes, including genocide, which made close to a million people flee their homes in Myanmar.
With so much else going on in the world, it is important that those people living in cramped and squalid conditions in the camps are not forgotten about and their voices are heard. I will continue my campaign for them in 2019.
You can read my speech in the House of Commons on Thursday 20th December about the Rohingya refugee crisis here.
There was some good news from the Chancellor in 2018. The budget this year was very encouraging and it shows that hard work and fiscal restraint over the last 8 years is starting to pay off. The Budget confirmed the additional £20.5 bn for the NHS - the single largest cash injection in our public services by a peacetime government in our history. This is of course great news and it shows the government’s commitment to protecting and improving NHS services in the UK.
The Budget also saw an additional £2.7bn in funding to deliver Universal Credit. Whilst there has certainly been issues with the roll-out of UC, and we must continue to work hard to help those that have been unfairly treated by the new system, I believe that this is a good policy. With this additional funding it will be a significant improvement to our benefits system.
Business rates and their impact on our high streets, and especially pubs in St Albans, is another issue that I will continue to campaign on in the New Year. Sadly, the business rate relief announced in the Budget will do little to nothing for almost all of our wonderful pubs in St Albans. I met with various pub owners recently and took a tour of several pubs in the city that will be negatively impacted by business rates.
I have written a letter to the Chancellor on this issue which you can read here. I will be holding a meeting with several St Albans pub owners and the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury, Robert Jenrick MP early in the New Year to press the case for rate relief for pubs like ours in St Albans that don’t fall under the £51,000 rateable value threshold for business rate relief.
=Brexit has continued to dominate politics in the UK in the last year. The last few months have been extremely fast-moving and we have seen significant steps being made on both sides of the Channel to come to an agreement on our departure and future relationship.
Due to concerns expressed across the House, the Brexit deal vote was postponed and is now due to be voted on in mid-January. After listening to every single Brexit debate since the agreement was published and speaking to colleagues and government ministers, I decided that I cannot support the deal in its current form and I sincerely hope that reforms are made.
The Northern Irish backstop, as it currently stands, is something I cannot sign up to. If used, this backstop would effectively tie GB into the EU Customs Union and Northern Ireland into the Customs Union and parts of the Single Market, creating a border for some goods down the Irish Sea. The agreement would provide no incentive for the EU to negotiate a comprehensive FTA with the UK if we have paid over £39bn and are in the backstop without the ability to unilaterally leave it.
Going forward, I believe it is strongly in the national interest for the government to seek legally binding additions to the Northern Ireland protocol which would allow us to leave the backstop unilaterally if we so choose. It is unconscionable that we could be in a scenario where democratically elected politicians in the UK could stand on manifesto commitments to leave the backstop in future, but would be unable to do so because of this Withdrawal Agreement. This simply cannot happen.
I will wait and see what, if anything, is brought back from Brussels and presented before parliament ahead of the vote.
The parliamentary year ended on a happy and festive note as my staff and I had the honour of hosting a significant number of local charities at our annual “Volunteer Thank You” event in the House of Commons. Volunteers are the life blood of St Albans and I salute you all.
As we look ahead to 2019, I hope that we all can come together and look confidently to the future. There are of course many challenges ahead but there is also a great number of opportunities for our country. By coming together and looking to the future with a positive vision I strongly believe our best days lie ahead of us.
Thank you for taking the time to read my New Year’s message and I hope for a safe, healthy and prosperous future for you and your family in 2019.
With best wishes,
Anne Main MP