Victoria’s news and comment column
When I was first elected to Parliament in 2015, I knew that it was going to be an interesting time to enter politics given that a referendum on our future relationship with the European Union formed a key part of the Party’s 2015 manifesto. I am not sure anyone would have predicted that, two years on, we would have gone to the polls again, have a minority Government and be leaving the European Union. It has been an eventful few years. Needless to say, it remains an absolute honour and privilege to represent the area in which I have always lived.
Going back to Westminster was easier the second time around simply because I had an office to return to. It took over a month back in 2015, during which time I had to “hot desk” in any available space. However, the subsequent cyber-attack has meant a complete overhaul of our email systems which I am still getting to grips with. The inevitable reshuffle of ministerial posts reached down to the Parliamentary Private Secretary level and I was moved from supporting John Hayes in the Department for Transport, to helping neighbouring MP Andrea Leadsom in her role as Leader of the Commons. Andrea and I have known each other for many years, having set up a charity before we entered politics. As her PPS, I act as the bridge between the Government and the Parliamentary Party. The Leader is responsible for scheduling and progressing business through the House of Commons, a role which is very important given the current situation. She makes a statement every Thursday morning which I must be on the benches for. How business is allocated has been under intense scrutiny since we returned, and Mr Speaker allowed an emergency debate in our final week to discuss the issue. The number of opposition day debates and the process of establishing select committees were particular areas of interest.
We will have select committee elections in September when the House returns for a brief sitting before we all depart for Party Conference. I am hoping to go back on the Justice Committee and to continue our work on prison reform – an area in which we made some progress on during the last Parliament. It is really important that we focus on breaking the cycle of reoffending, tackle drug and illegal mobile phone use and improve the safety of our prison staff as we move forward. Many people often forget that we have a prison in our own area. I am fortunate enough to have a good relationship with the Governor and chaplain of HMP Bullingdon and regularly hear from prisoners serving sentences at the prison. Their letters form just one genre of casework I deal with on a daily basis. Visas stuck in the system, delayed medical appointments and issues with inadequate housing conditions often spur constituents into contacting me.
Before Parliament returns, I have a rare opportunity for some time at home while my children are on their school holidays. Spending Monday to Thursdays in Westminster means family time is even more sacred when we get it. It is also the season for fetes and other summer-festivities. Re-opening newly refurbished village halls has been popular this year. Judging Tadmarton’s scarecrow competition was a novel experience too. The summer recess also provides an excellent opportunity to carry on with my popular pub tours. Broughton in July; Ardley and Tadmarton when the nights start to draw closer. And, there is also a feeling of déjà vu as we spend another summer fighting to save the Horton General Hospital. I was blindsided by the decision to suspend obstetric services last July; the Clinical Commissioning Group plans to make a decision on its fatally flawed Phase One consultation on 10 August. I remain absolutely committed to ensuring acute services remain at the Horton. There is a never a dull moment as MP for North Oxfordshire!
March 2017 – #Banbury2JR travel survey
I was in the midst of writing this month’s column when the tragic incident at Westminster unfolded last Wednesday. The attempted attack on our democracy was an act of evil and a terrible tragedy. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who protect us; my thoughts and prayers are with the friends and families of those injured and bereaved, particularly those who knew PC Palmer.
However, we must remain undeterred and carry on with normal democratic life. It was business as usual on Thursday morning: my Westminster staff and I were back in the office and my constituency staff got on with their tasks in Upper Heyford. Much of their time recently has been spent analysing the responses to my travel survey on journey times from the Horton to the John Radcliffe. I have been overwhelmed by the number of those who have participated – 371 so far and more keep coming in by the day.
Although we have been told that it takes about 45 minutes to get from the north of the county to the John Radcliffe, my survey shows otherwise. Those doing the journey have told me that, on average, it is taking around 90 minutes. This comes as no surprise; on the two journeys I have done with local journalists as part of the campaign it has taken me well over an hour on both occasions. Parking is even more varied: responses range from five minutes to an hour. More than ten people have said it has taken them at least an hour to find a space. 81 per cent of respondents use a private car, many noting that public transport is simply not an option either because of timetabling issues or because they are physically unable to get on a bus.
I am afraid the results have done nothing to allay my concerns about the Transformation Programme proposals. Using journey times courtesy of Google Maps does not constitute a robust evidence base. It is simply not good enough; real life experiences should inform decisions about the future organisation of healthcare in Oxfordshire. The safety of our mothers and their babies is paramount, yet I am fearful for the future if my survey results are not given the attention they deserve. I will be making my views clear in my own submission and would encourage all my constituents to engage with the exercise as well. Time is running out: the consultation closes on Sunday 9 April. From the strength of opposition expressed so coherently by those at the public meetings, local elected officials and our councils, I cannot see how the Clinical Commissioning Group will be able to take their proposals forward.
February 2017 – Great British Spring Clean
Next week, I am really looking forward to taking part in the first Great British Spring Clean on 3-5 March. It is another initiative from Keep Britain Tidy, who were behind last year’s successful Clean for the Queen campaign which saw hundreds of thousands of people from across the country tidying up their local areas before the Queen’s ninetieth birthday. On my parents’ farm in Aynho we were always taught to pick up any litter we found on our walks. All of my family have enjoyed more organised village litter-picking, and I found getting involved with the organisation of Clean for the Queen to be a natural progression. Since then, litter has become something of an obsession and I am now spending much of my time drumming up support among my Parliamentary colleagues for the Great British Spring Clean, as MPs are often good at getting wider community groups involved.
Last year’s campaign saw some brilliant events, both in the constituency and across the country. I really enjoyed visiting schools and other local community groups, including Bure Park Primary School and Hill View School. Getting people outside to help clean up their local areas was really rewarding. I hope that this year’s initiative will be even more successful and that it will become an annual fixture. Last year, 250,000 people got involved – this year, we are hoping to see over 500,000.
Along with organising the Great British Spring Clean, I have begun to wage a war on disposable plastic bottles. I have had some really interesting discussions with BRITA UK, who are based in Bicester, and WRAP, a very effective waste and recycling organisation in Banbury. At the end of last year, I chaired a Parliamentary roundtable discussion on disposable plastics, hosted by BRITA, in Westminster. There were some good new ideas on how to help people find to reusable alternatives to disposable plastics. According to BRITA, by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. Even a bottle dropped in our landlocked county of Oxfordshire is likely to end up in the sea.
There is so much we can do to help make our local area an even more pleasant environment to live and work in. North Oxfordshire has a real mix of rural and urban areas, and it is just as important to keep both clean and tidy. Litter undoubtedly breeds more litter. When wider issues of Brexit or saving the Horton can seem overwhelming at times, it is good to focus on the truly local.
For more information on the Great British Spring Clean, take a look at: http://www.greatbritishspringclean.org.uk.
January 2017 – Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group Transformation Programme
For many of us, the biggest local issue is the future of the Horton General Hospital. I think it is important that, whatever else is done in the name of improvement, we keep A and E, maternity and pediatric services in Banbury. The distance and traffic means that it is just too far to get to the John Radcliffe for these acute services when we need them in an emergency. Even for those in Bicester, it can be quite a journey to the JR. As you may have heard in the press, last week the Oxfordshire Clinical Commissioning Group launched a consultation on Phase One of its Transformation Programme. I was extremely disappointed that they decided to proceed, particularly as I have made it very clear that I do not support splitting the consultation into two parts.
The consultation is really hard to understand. I think it is important that, with our growing population, and with older people living longer after retirement, sometimes with complex health needs, that we start to plan for the future. It is very difficult for us to express our views unless we know the bigger picture. For example, we simply cannot judge whether the suggested changes to acute stroke care in the Horton are good news when we have no idea what role Bicester Community Hospital (where people may be re-habilitated after a stroke) will have in the future. Similarly, moving dialysis and chemotherapy services to the Horton – as suggested in Phase One – may well be good news, but not if it jeopardises our A&E and paediatric services on which we will be consulted in Phase Two. Obstetric maternity services will be consulted on in Phase One, however further consultation on the future of Midwife Led Units (MLUs) including whether we can maintain a unit both in Banbury and Chipping Norton will make up part of Phase Two. In my view, this complicates the issues we face regarding maternity services in the north of the county.
Having said this, it is VERY important that we join in with the consultation and make our views clear. I have set up a dedicated page on my website (www.victoriaprentis.com) where there will be a list of “Frequently Asked Questions” to answer any queries people may have about the changes put forward. The CCG will be holding two public events in Banbury on 26 January and 16 March, and one meeting in Bicester on 21 February. Please do apply for a ticket by sending your name, contact number, and preferred meeting date to firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope that everyone who wishes to can attend.
November 2016 – Justice Committee
Every week, I spend my Tuesday mornings at Westminster on the Justice Committee. Our meetings usually involve gathering evidence and questioning experts to inform our various reports. We usually have a number of subjects under consideration, which currently include how to deal with criminal records of convictions of under-18 year olds and prison reform. Some of our reports have had instant effect on government policy (for example on the criminal court charge); others are long term pieces of work.
I have long been interested in prison reform, since I spent many years representing the Prison Service in the courts. As a Committee we published a report looking at prison safety back in May. I have been very concerned about recent events in prisons such as the riot at HMP Bedford, and the videos of prisoners in HMP Bullingdon in Bicester which was shown in the recent Channel 4 programme. It is clear that there are some deep-seated problems in our prisons. We must confront recruitment problems head-on. Without adequate staff we cannot make prisons the rehabilitative places they must be if we are to cut re-offending rates, and break the cycle of criminality.
Brexit is also going to be a key focus as we look ahead; we will be studying its impact on the justice system, and have just announced an inquiry into how our exit from the European Union will affect the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, our Crown dependencies. Some of us on the Committee spoke at length with the Justice Secretary in the wake of the High Court judgment on Article 50. Personally, I think we should respect the judges’ ruling in this case. They were asked to look closely at the application of the law, and made their judgment on that basis. They were simply doing their job and should not be criticised for that. While I voted Remain at the referendum, I am a firm believer in our parliamentary democracy. We must respect the result; I would therefore vote to trigger Article 50.
I know the Justice Committee will be watching developments closely.
October 2016 – Visit to Jordan
At the end of September Save the Children arranged for me to visit Jordan. They know I have long been a vociferous supporter of targeting aid to Syrian refugees; it costs around £29,000 to resettle a refugee in Europe, but around £2,300 to do so in Jordan. I wanted to see first-hand how the money we send in aid is spent. I visited refugee camps, educational projects and met many refugees, local officials and aid workers.
I visited some of the country’s refugee camps including Za’atari, the second largest refugee camp in the world. Za’atari is only 15km from the Syrian border and houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees – greater than the population of Banbury and Bicester combined – providing them with protection, food and water. From what I saw and the people I spoke to, those in the camp were safe and able to access healthcare, education, food and water. None of the refugees I spoke to had any desire to move to Europe. There want to sit out the war in the safety of Jordan, and to go home to Syria as soon as possible.
Children in the camp are given a degree of education by the global Syrian aid programme, to which the UK government has contributed over £1 billion. This year we are also funding school places for 50,000 Syrian refugee children who live not in camps but out in the community. I was able to see how some of this money is spent, and it is clear that significant progress is being made. Many of these children have reached the age of ten with no formal education.
The visit did leave me very fearful for around 80,000 refugees, who I was not able to see, who are stuck in an area known as the ‘berm’, just inside the Jordanian border. Following a terrorist attack in June, the Jordanians, who have done so much to alleviate suffering, closed their borders to new refugees. These people have amassed in this area, and, apart from one aid drop via crane in August, they have had no access to humanitarian aid at all. Only a report from Amnesty international, using satellite thermal imagery, tells us anything about the number there. They have nothing, and the weather is getting colder by the day. I am doing what I can to talk about their plight here, but we must all put pressure on the international community to help with this worsening situation.
The visit certainly gave me impetus to continue fundraising efforts to provide relief for Syrians affected by the terrible civil war. Last year the Singing for Syrians campaign raised over £100,000 for charities working in Syria. This year’s flagship Parliamentary concert will take place in St Margaret’s Church, Westminster, on Tuesday 13 December 2016. If you would be interested in getting involved in “Singing for Syrians” to raise money for those affected by the conflict, please visit www.singingforsyrians.com.
September 2016 – David Cameron
After a busy summer, Parliament resumed at the beginning of September. It has been an eventful fortnight. I have been getting to grips with my new role as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, questioned the Justice Secretary and the Courts Minister in Justice Committee meetings, and secured a 10 Minute Rule Bill for the Horton General Hospital which I will present on 25 October. Prison safety has featured prominently: I discussed it alongside the former Prisons Minister on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire Show and also spoke in a debate on the same subject in Westminster Hall.
While my diary has been jam-packed, work at Westminster was overshadowed last week by news of David Cameron’s resignation as Member of Parliament for Witney. I was really sad to hear that my constituency neighbour was standing down with immediate effect. He has been a great source of support and inspiration, both locally and nationally. We will miss him.
David Cameron achieved so much during his time as a Member of Parliament, Leader of the Opposition and as Prime Minister. During his six years in post, 1000 new jobs a day were created. David reformed the Conservative Party and in doing so, brought about equal marriage law and attracted a greater diversity of Conservative voters and candidates. Over a million apprenticeships were created, encouraging more young people into work. We now have virtually no unemployment in our area. His legacy is significant.
Even while he was Prime Minister David never lost sight of his constituency role. He was always keen to support those he represented, attend charity events and worked closely with Oxfordshire’s councils at what has been a difficult time for local Government. For us in North Oxfordshire, he has been a constant supporter of the Horton General Hospital campaigns from the beginning. Even as recently as this summer, with the threatened closure of the Horton maternity unit, he lent his support to our campaign to save the hospital and was committed to doing all that he could to ensure acute services remained at the Horton.
While I am sad to see him go, the by-election will be an interesting time for all of us locally. I look forward to working closely with the next MP for Witney, and wish David and his family the very best as they begin their new life away from Westminster.
August 2016 – Horton General Hospital
While August is usually quiet at Westminster, locally we have been dealing with a crisis. On 20th July, the Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust told me that there would not be sufficient obstetricians available to work at the Horton General Hospital to ensure the safe provision of maternity services. The Trust has therefore said that they will have no choice but to suspend consultant-led maternity services, and to downgrade to a midwife-only unit by October. The Special Care Baby Unit would also have to close. Mothers wanting epidurals, needing caesarean sections or who require any higher level of intervention will have no choice but to go to the John Radcliffe to have their baby.
As many of you will know, I was born at the Horton, as were my two sisters. Four generations of my family have been treated there. My personal attachment to the hospital is strong. But even without this connection, I would find the Trust’s contingency plan completely incomprehensible.
North Oxfordshire is growing. We have new housing in both Banbury and Bicester which will inevitably bring swathes of young, and expanding, families. Many of us avoid driving into Oxford because of the gridlock on the roads. Journeys often take well over an hour at peak times, especially from the more remote parts of the county. Seconds, not minutes, matter when complications arise mid-labour. How an ambulance transporting a mother experiencing complications (even after the safe delivery of her baby) would navigate its way through the traffic doesn’t bear thinking about. There is little or no public transport from the north of the county to the John Radcliffe. Parking is often extremely difficult.
Problems with recruitment must not be used as an excuse to deem a service unsafe. The Trust should be thinking proactively and inventively. Alternatives need to be considered, including asking whether consultants currently based at the John Radcliffe would be willing to cover rotas at the Horton. To an outside observer, it seems like the Horton is being set up to fail: the downgrading of the maternity unit will have an inevitable impact on the remaining acute services. The domino effect is particularly strong in a small hospital like ours.
If my inbox is anything to go by, these are concerns shared by many of you. I have made all these points abundantly clear in the conversations I have had with Trust officials, representatives from the Clinical Commissioning Group and special advisers at the Department of Health. My colleagues in neighbouring constituencies, including our former Prime Minister David Cameron, have said they are behind us. Local Labour Party councillors also support the campaign. The Board makes their final decision on 31 August.
For me, the only responsible option is for the planned reduction in services at the Horton to be suspended while the potential to move patients or clinical staff from Oxford is properly explored. Without this, the consultation process is meaningless. The Trust should not forget that the Horton General Hospital was given to the people of North Oxfordshire by Mary Ann Horton and her family almost 150 years ago. We must bear the spirit of that gift in mind when making plans for our hospital’s future.
July 2016 – EU Referendum result
The last column I wrote here was on the day of the referendum. A great deal has happened since then, and the view from Westminster has changed more than any of us imagined.
The result of the referendum came as a shock. Our area was very closely split. I have heard from many of you in the weeks since the vote, and have sympathised with business people who fear for the future, while also listening to those who didn’t like the direction in which Europe was heading, and who hope the situation will now change. There is no point now in discussing whether or not we should have had a referendum in the first place. We are where we are, and though we don’t yet know the form it will take, Brexit means Brexit.
Going forward, the priority must be to get the best possible deal for all the people of Britain. I have been a constitutional lawyer all my working life, and I am looking forward to helping with this process where I can.
David Cameron’s decision to stand down is extremely sad, particularly for us in Oxfordshire. He will go down in history as a great reforming Prime Minister, and we know him best locally as a doughty supporter of the Horton General Hospital. I hope that we will be seeing him more in the future.
The new Prime Minister is also from the Thames Valley; Theresa May was brought up locally and is the MP for Maidenhead. I worked with Theresa when I was a civil servant, and on the Investigatory Powers Bill since my arrival in Westminster. I have been impressed by her handling of complex matters. She was the right choice for the job; she is thorough and experienced and is superb at difficult negotiations.
In the midst of all this you may be surprised to know that Parliamentary life continues as usual; I have made speeches in the last few weeks on changing the law on homicide, and reducing court fees and charges. Surgeries and pub tours, including my new venture into supermarket surgeries, continue as normal, and I very much enjoyed speaking about Charlotte Bronte at the new Buckingham Literary Festival recently.
June 2016 – EU Referendum and Armed Forces Day
Today is an important day for the nation and will decide the direction the UK takes in the years to come. Personally, I believe that we are stronger, safer and better off within the EU. We have the best of both worlds; outside the Eurozone, but able to access the Single Market; outside Schengen, and able to maintain our borders. I know that many of you don’t agree. Whatever the outcome, we must all work together to make a success of the decision. There has been much in the press about the way this campaign has been fought on both sides. I hope that we can all respect the result of today’s vote and heal the divides that have formed in recent weeks.
Despite its importance, the EU question should not overshadow all other issues. This month we also mark Armed Forces Day on 25th June. This is a day for us to thank all our Service personnel and their families, who sacrifice so much to keep Britain safe.
Each new posting can cause considerable upheaval for a Service family. Often they face challenges making use of services we all take for granted, including registering with GPs and finding school places for their children. We are extremely fortunate to have such professional and dedicated Armed Forces personnel; it is our responsibility to ensure that their home life is steady and stable. We are making good progress in ensuring these families receive the support they deserve through the Armed Forces Covenant. In our area, the NHS, businesses, and our local government authorities have committed to uphold the Covenant in their work. A new Service Family Accommodation programme is currently being rolled out. We have to ensure that the principles of the Covenant are embedded in all aspects of it.
Bicester has long been a garrison town. Last November we welcomed 1 Regiment, Royal Logistics Corps at St David’s Barracks. I have been to the barracks many times; most recently to watch the Oxfordshire (The Rifles) Army Cadet Force Battalion sounding retreat. It was clear how much the young people really value the opportunities they are given. My own children really enjoy the Cadet Force they are involved with. Bicester Town Council has organised a carnival to coincide with Armed Forces Day. There will be stalls and celebrations.
May 2016 – Local planning
I am delighted to have the chance to report back in a monthly column.
One year in, I’m getting the hang of some of the more arcane traditions at Westminster, and settling into a routine. I usually start Mondays with a surgery or meetings locally and then get the train from either Banbury or Bicester to Parliament. We often don’t finish until shortly before 11pm so I spend Monday and Tuesday nights sleeping in London. The rest of the week varies depending on Parliamentary business. I do spend a fair amount of time on trains. This isn’t always wasted; many of my constituents do the same so I usually meet someone with something important to talk about. It also means that I am acutely aware of the reduction in the numbers of trains from Bicester North over the past year, and I continue to press Chiltern to bring the service back up to its previous excellent levels.
My Tuesday mornings are always taken up with the Justice Committee. It is good to use knowledge from my previous career to contribute to our inquiries on court fees, young adult offenders and reform in prisons. I also attend the Statutory Instruments committee weekly scrutinising new legislation, and have sat on various Bill and Delegated Legislation Committees. My years as a Government lawyer are proving to be useful.
I am proud to be part of a Conservative majority government and really believe that our policies are putting us on the right track both nationally and locally contributing to the very healthy state of Bicester’s economy. However, this does not mean I can’t ask questions when I don’t believe a plan is in our best interests. Examples of this include fairer funding for Oxfordshire’s schools (to which the Government agreed following backbench pressure), HS2 (no concessions yet, but I am pressing for an Adjudicator to help those affected if the line is built) and the importance of respecting neighbourhood plans.
Planning is undoubtedly the biggest issue facing our community in and around Bicester. I know that we all get very fed up with the traffic jams, poor state of the roads, and the feeling that we all live in an enormous building site. I’m determined to work with local councillors and the Bicester community to press for the necessary infrastructure and investment to allow us to manage our growing population. Negativity about change is understandable, but if we want to enjoy the benefits of growth, such as our almost full employment rate, then we must try to make it work for us. The key issues are to make sure transport and medical provision expands, that our schools continue to improve, and that we ensure our new communities are fully integrated into the life of the town.
I was thrilled to be at the opening of the newly located St Edburg’s Primary School recently, and proud to ring the old school bell with all the children. The facilities for those over 16 at Bardwell School are a great step forward, and soon we will be opening the Bicester Technology Studio, which offers specialist courses in logistics and sustainable construction. Engineering companies locally are crying out for well-trained young people.
I can’t wave a magic wand and take us back to the sleepy Bicester of my childhood. Should any constituent have a specific concern, please contact me and I would be happy to take it up with the relevant authorities where appropriate. The best way of getting in touch is via email: email@example.com.