As I write on Tuesday, I hope to 'catch the Speaker's eye' and speak in the Budget debate. While I plan to raise a number of issues, one of the most pressing points included in my speech is the imminent revaluation of business rates. In recent weeks, I have canvassed opinion from local businesses on the upcoming changes and will continue to work with business groups to support those that are the most affected.
I thank all those that have got in touch with me to highlight individual cases and I would be pleased to hear from any other local enterprises on the matter. I will be raising local examples in the House of Commons and will urge the Government to keep this issue under review. £435m has been made available through the Budget to be directed towards those seeing the most significant rises but I am keen to ensure the success of small businesses remains a priority. As such, I have written to the Chancellor and would be happy to share a copy of that letter with local businesses if they would like to receive a copy. Please do get in touch if that is the case.
Elsewhere in the Budget, I welcomed the introduction of T-Levels, aimed at putting technical education on a similar footing to the A-Level system. I have long been of the opinion that parity of respect across all types of education is important. Addressing the skills gap and allowing businesses to recruit the very best talent requires our education system to provide a range of quality courses. I am very hopeful that T-Levels will go some way in achieving that goal.
Warwickshire College is a good example of an institution providing first-class courses in a range of subject areas. Building on this foundation and replicating its success across the country can bring a wide range of benefits. I thank the College for the invitation to join its Graduation Ceremony last week and was pleased to congratulate all those that have recently completed an apprenticeship. I wish them all the very best with their future careers.
This week, as part of my role as Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Video Games, I chaired a meeting that brought together MPs, representatives of the games industry and civil servants to discuss the implications of leaving the EU and what constitutes a positive outcome from the negotiations in securing long-term prosperity for the sector.
My involvement in the APPG stems from the strong presence of video games companies in our constituency, making up one of the biggest clusters outside of London. Supporting the sector is therefore a priority for me, with a large number of local residents employed in local games companies which contribute an enormous amount to the local economy.
The event was hosted alongside trade association, Ukie, which has produced a new report on the priorities for the sector as we prepare to leave the EU. The report, State of Play, notes the wide range of requirements for games companies to flourish, from attracting skills and talent to continuing to receive funding. At the APPG meeting, we discussed the merits of the document and heard from senior civil servants who will play a role in setting negotiating objectives.
The UK video games industry is the 6th largest in the world and Brexit will have a significant impact on our international economic relations. We must embrace the opportunities available to us and aim to increase our share of the global market. Much of our work in support of the sector can also tie into the Government's Industrial Strategy, particularly in investing in Research & Development and a strong skills base.
We must provide certainty to the video games sector and the wider economy that the UK will remain an excellent place to do business. Warwick and Leamington is a prime example of that.
It has been a very busy start to the week as I travelled to Edinburgh with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee, before contributing to a range of Parliamentary debates on Tuesday in Westminster.
The trip to Edinburgh encompassed a wide range of issues relating to the work of the BEIS Select Committee. We met with representatives of the Green Investment Bank in order to discuss its performance and future as well as the Scottish Government to discuss the energy sector, energy innovation and Brexit. On Sunday evening, we met with the Scottish Whisky Association, representing a significant sector for the UK economy, to hear its priorities as the Government negotiates our exit from the EU. The trip was insightful and productive in terms of the Committee's work.
In Parliament on Tuesday, I started the morning by contributing to a debate on Intellectual Property, highlighting the importance of protecting businesses operating in sectors such as the creative industries. I therefore welcomed the inclusion of Intellectual Property in the Government's Industrial Strategy. I also succeeded in the ballot for Treasury questions and was asked the Minister about government plans to support our regional economy, with particular reference to the automotive sector. If we are to embrace the shift to electric vehicles, it is imperative that we provide the necessary infrastructure.
Later in the day, I spoke in a debate on the Government's Productivity Plan. Improving productivity in the UK economy is important if we are to realise our potential in terms of economic growth. Our productivity in the Midlands is lower than the European average and I welcomed the opportunity for MPs to debate how best to reverse that trend.
If you would like to read my speeches in the House of Commons, please visit the 'In Parliament' section.
Small businesses are the backbone of our local and national economy. As the Member of Parliament for Warwick and Leamington, one of my priorities is to promote the value of investing in our local area and to ensure that businesses are able to operate in an environment which lends itself to growth and prosperity.
Since 2010, unemployment in Warwick and Leamington has fallen by 74%, a significant achievement and one that local businesses can take pride in. We are home to a highly skilled workforce, strong infrastructure and links to world class academic institutions. In short, our area is a great place to do business.
For all their success, businesses face ongoing challenges and I am always keen to make the voice of businesses heard with government. In April, the threshold for 100% business rate relief will rise to £12,000, with the current level at £6,000. However, I recognise that we must continue to listen to business to address any issues hindering growth.
As such, I have this week written to the Warwick Chamber of Trade, the Leamington Chamber, the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and Leamington Business Improvement District (BID) to canvass opinion on the upcoming business rate changes and in particular on the revaluation process. Furthermore, I would be very keen to hear from businesses across Warwick and Leamington on any challenges they are facing. Please email email@example.com. Once I have gathered responses from the various organisations, I will be writing to the Chancellor.
In writing to local member groups, I reaffirmed my commitment to working with them to continue to strengthen our local economy. We have made great progress in recent years but have tremendous potential that we must ensure is realised.
Last week I visited India, a country I was keen to see again after visiting with the International Development Select Committee in 2012. The invitation was from VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) and its purpose was to better understand their work, meet volunteers, hear about their experiences, build relationships and provide an assessment of their current programmes.
It is strange how some countries affect you more than others. I suppose it might have something to do with my father having been born in India – a natural link, or fond memories of people and places from my previous visit. I was genuinely excited to go and to be driven through Delhi late at night through slow-moving and chaotic traffic, patiently moving forward; you know you are in a different world. Struck by the warmth of welcome, genuine friendliness and natural curiosity of everyone you meet, it is a magnificent place, steeped in tradition and complexity with a strong heart. It was great to be back.
VSO is a well-established NGO with a reputation as one of the world's leading development charities working through volunteers, with a presence in over 30 countries. In India, their themes for development are securing livelihoods, promoting youth engagement, inclusive education and participation and governance. Underpinning all of this is an ambition to create more opportunities, whether that be through promoting entrepreneurship, greater use of resources or improving and extending the education system. For example, India is seeing a decline of child enrolment and retention in schools and VSO is rightly structuring programmes to reverse that trend. Similarly, the infant mortality rate is 57 per 1000 and as India's prosperity is on the rise, it is critical that these issues are addressed.
After a briefing in Delhi I took a domestic flight to Vadodara where I met with representatives of the MS University and the Faculty of Social Work, which has a specific focus on volunteering. I saw first-hand some of the teams in action and heard about a range of projects that the young volunteers were working on. There was clearly a huge amount of passion for the change they are a part of, making a very real and sustainable difference to people's lives and the communities in which they work.
The VSO volunteers were seriously impressive, with confidence, strong communication skills and a commitment to 'giving something back'. The organisation is well structured with a clear strategy and direction. They see a growing appetite for volunteering, not least in collaboration with UK programmes such as the International Citizen Service, which will initially see 150 UK volunteers paired with Indian counterparts. I was particularly pleased to meet the British High Commissioner, who was enthusiastic about VSO and keen to re-establish links.
If Delhi is representative of India as a whole, there is much to be positive about. Growth is almost tangible and developing lasting, positive relationships between the UK and India, particularly through young people, can only be beneficial. Building on existing successes is important, aided by our historic cultural links. India will develop rapidly, its population is already at 1.3 billion and will continue to expand exponentially. For the Indian economy and society to develop in a way that benefits the whole country, it is important to promote social mobility, improve health services and foster an environment in which business and commerce can flourish.
I wholeheartedly support our commitment to spend 0.7% of GNI on international development, but our efforts to make a significant difference are enhanced through the work of voluntary organisations. I pay tribute to VSO for all that they do and thank them for the chance to support their work. Volunteers are so often unsung heroes, but I am grateful for the opportunity to promote their invaluable contribution.
India is a wonderful country; vibrant, challenging and dynamic. I hope to visit again and see the long term impact that organisations such as VSO have made, but in the meantime, I would like to thank my hosts for their hospitality and professionalism. I am sure we will keep in touch!
As readers may be aware, in the last Parliament I introduced a Private Member's Bill which subsequently became law; namely the Social Value Act. The legislation came into force in 2013 and places a duty on public sector commissioners to consider social, economic and environmental benefits when procuring services against purely financial concerns. Last week, I was pleased to hear that the Government intends to conduct a second review into how the Act is working and how we can spread its benefits more widely.
Evidence suggests that around 75% of public authorities are now integrating social value into their processes, but there is much more to do to increase awareness further and transform the way we commission and design services. One point that I will be asking the inquiry to consider is to extend the legislation to include procurement of goods. For example, North Lincolnshire Council (NLC) became signatories to the Charter for Sustainable British Steel, which promotes the use of quality British Steel in construction projects, in November 2015. This led to the establishment of a framework for construction works in the local area which included provision for social value outcomes. The first project that saw NLC fulfil their commitments to this construction framework was the £5.6m Axholme North Sports Centre.
The last review, led by Lord Young, took place in 2015 and it recognised "inconsistent practice" across the UK. As well as strengthening the Social Value Act, clear guidance needs to be made available to public sector commissioners across the country. The benefits of incorporating social value into procurement are enormous and I look forward to working with the Government through the upcoming review.
In this section you can read my articles in the local press relating to my work - both in Westminster and in the constituency. Please get in touch with any comments you would like to make.