Friday 30 September 2011

Citizens Advice Annual Conference 2011

Below is the text of my speech to the Citizens Advice Conference held in York earlier this month.

'Thank you for inviting me here today to speak at your annual conference.  It’s lovely to see old friends again and to meet new people coming into the service still dedicated to the ideals of CAB.

I have to say if I could have seen into the future at my first conference in 1986, I would not have believed I’d be standing here today and a lot, if not all, is down to the experiences and lessons I have learnt through working 23 years as a CAB Manager/Chief Executive in St. Helens – I must be a slow learner to need such a long apprenticeship.

Although when I review the knowledge that CAB has brought to me it probably is not all that surprising and CAB work is an excellent foundation for political activity.

When I was asked to speak, I thought I would review some of the history of the CAB, looking back at our challenges as well as forward to the future and I re-read a lovely little book titled ‘The Story of the Citizens Advice Bureau’ published for the Silver Jubilee in 1964 – no I wasn’t actually there then.

And, I was struck by a comment made by the Home Secretary at the 1959 conference, 'Whilst all of us in public work are there because we are interested in the social improvement of our people, we differ from you in that we have so little intimate knowledge of these subjects'.

I don’t think you’d find a politician today who would admit that quite so frankly.

That is why the social policy role of the CAB is so important and I don’t mind admitting that, since my election, I have often felt very guilty and regretted not making a larger contribution to that work when I had the chance.

My predecessor as M.P. for Makerfield, Sir Ian McCartney, a previous recipient of CAB Parliamentarian of the Year and a man for whom I have huge respect, once said to me that  the best legislation is founded in constituency casework citing the example of the legislation he introduced regarding the flammability of foam furniture that had resulted from a tragic death in the constituency.

However, this is not a view universally shared by MPs and, indeed, constituencies do vary dramatically, so the pivotal role of a national service giving actual examples of cases, snapshots of people’s lives, is vitally important – and very difficult to refute.

The parliamentary briefings prepared for debates and committees are well respected and immensely useful raising the profile of the service and also making legislators stop and think about the effect that the legislation has had and will have on the lives of people throughout the country.  It can be a very strange and almost sheltered life in Parliament and I am always happy to return home and get back to helping people with their real lives but the CAB briefings take those real lives to all parliamentarians, and give examples from all types of areas, rural areas, urban areas, wealthy areas, areas of deprivation that we cannot possibly all experience.
I think that’s my plug for the social policy work over, so I would now like to turn to the future.

I think the word I hear most often is ‘challenging’ and I wouldn’t disagree with that but I also believe there are opportunities.

As I said, I have been re-reading our history and there have been major challenges in the past, in fact all government funding was removed for a short time but the service still survived and has grown in both scope and influence.

The CAB and local Bureaux are almost sacrosanct – everybody from David Cameron through to new backbench M.P.s praises the work of their local Bureau and relies upon their services.

However, whenever I hear this praise, I am reminded of one of my AGMs in the early 1990s when the local Mayor, who was also the member for funding the voluntary sector, was the keynote speaker.  Naturally, he was fulsome in his praise of the service. The vote of thanks was given by one of the older volunteers, a wonderful feisty person who had been with the service a considerable time and she thanked him for his kind words, then saying, ‘But, in an old phrase, fine words butter no parsnips and what we need is the money to keep providing the service and not the grant freeze you have proposed’....... We did get the money.

It feels a bit like that now and part of the reason is the complex funding structure of most Bureaux and the interdependence of each strand. It is difficult because there is no one government department that provides all the funding and takes the responsibility and there is even some confusion about where the national grant is spent.

That’s why, besides contributing to social policy work, the other thing I would urge you to do is go back and talk to your politicians both local and national.  Explain the effects of cuts – your Bureau may not receive legal aid funding directly but may have a specialist who comes to the Bureau from a central unit. Leave your M.P. in no doubt what would happen should that service be withdrawn.

The CAB service is talking the language politicians want to hear, in fact the minister in the Legal Aid bill committee stated that he wanted to ‘empower’ individuals to deal with their problems. Well local Bureaux have been doing that for years and doing it very efficiently and cost effectively.

No politician can imagine a world without their local CAB but they need to have demonstrated not only the cases that are helped but the efficiency and cost effectiveness of the service and the collaboration with other agencies so this myth of ‘duplication of services’,   would that  there were in my area,  can be well and truly scotched.

You have a great brand –which everyone believes they understand.  I remember someone saying to me – when I said I worked for CAB,  “I know what you do – you tell people where to go” – Perhaps that’s why I went into politics, to actually do that!

But, actually they don’t understand.  Inform them and keep informing them.

You have a great volunteer base who do incredible and professional working, supported by dedicated teams of paid staff – tell them how it works – explain the costs of volunteering as well as the benefits.

Keep your public profile high and keep inviting politicians to the Bureau and sending them short, sharp snappy profiles of your work.

Research them – what are their interests, what select committees are they on, how can you help them?
I can’t tell you how much the service is valued – it is a much loved institution – but equally it is not fully understood particularly on a local level.  I’ll do my bit to keep the service in the spot light and correct any misconceptions.... but really it’s down to you.  The door is open – keep pushing it!

I began with a quote from the fascinating and quaint 1964 history and I would like to end with one which I believe is still true today. It is from the 1963 Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, who said, 'Surely we have come to recognise that human needs can be met in full only by a partnership between the statutory and voluntary services. Each needs the other if the highest standards are to be achieved; they will not be achieved if we work in isolation. That’s as true now as it was then and the CAB service will continue to adapt and change but it will always be needed.'

Thursday 29 September 2011

Free Debt Advice Bill

A leading North West forum held a one day conference at the Wigan Investment Centre, supported by the Money Advice Liaison Group (MALG). The conference brought together leading practitioners in the money advice, consumer credit and personal debt sector including advice agencies, banks, local authorities and charitable trusts.

Wigan Evening Post 26th Sept 2011 

I was pleased to address the meeting and announce that I had secured parliamentary time to introduce a Bill to require fee charging debt management companies to inform potential clients of the availability of free advice on debt management.

In my speech, I also attacked the extortionate rates of interest that Pay Day Loan companies offer.

Whilst payday loans can offer a solution to people who need a short term fix, they often offer it at extortionate rates of over 2000% APR and this can lead to spiralling and unaffordable debt by allowing customers to keep borrowing to pay off the original loan.

There is another option available for people offering a pathway out of debt – the free advice sector with trusted organisations like Citizens Advice and Law Centres across the country offering impartial advice and a network of Credit Unions like Unify and Welcome, here in Wigan who provide secure savings and cheap loans to members.

Monday 19 September 2011

Support for bereaved Armed Forces families

David Murray is the RBL's County Manager 
I recently attended an important event in Parliament to highlight the importance of supporting bereaved Armed Forces families.
At the event, I was told about the Royal British Legion’s work to improve the welfare of the Armed Forces family in the local area and the Legion’s concern that the Government should support bereaved Armed Forces families by appointing a Chief Coroner to improve investigations into deaths of Service personnel.

David Murray, the Legions County Manager for the Greater Manchester area told me the Legion  spends nearly £1.4 million a week on helping both the serving and the ex-Service communities, including their families. The Legion is currently celebrating its 90th Anniversary Year, and this campaign is calling on the Government to do all they possibly can for bereaved Armed Forces families.

I was really pleased to meet David and tell him that just as the Legion supports bereaved Armed Forces families, so do I. The Legion does very important welfare work for some of my most vulnerable constituents in both the serving and ex-Service communities. It is vital that we, as a nation, are there for those serving in current conflicts, and especially for the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. I was grateful for the opportunity to learn more about how, in its 90th anniversary year, the Legion stands shoulder to shoulder with all who serve, including bereaved Armed Forces families. They deserve as much support as we can give them.

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Question Time at Winstanley College

Mark Hage is pictured with college students and myself.
I recently attended a question time session with Winstanley Sixth Form College students.

I talked about my role as a MP as well as answering some very good questions on a range of issues important to young people like tuition fees and the recent riots.

Tom Owen (16) said, “Watching the debate on current topical issues was fascinating. I learnt about labour’s position on tuition fees and student debt.”

Amy Nash (16) said, “It really brought home to me the complexity of issues MP’s have to consider and how relevant politics is for young people such as myself.”

The event was part of the current affairs enrichment program at Winstanley College, headed by Law teacher and Current Affairs Coordinator Mark Hage who said, “This debate is typical of the high quality events students at Winstanley participate in as they were able to talk authoritatively on a wide range of current issues affecting them and society. This was democracy at its best”.

Monday 12 September 2011

C-TEC - A fine example of manufacturing excellence in Wigan

Yvonne is pictured with Andrew Foster
I visited a world class manufacturer of life-safety products on Friday, 9th Sept.(Fri, 9th Sept) having nominated Goose Green’s C-TEC for the ‘Made by Britain’ initiative, as an example of manufacturing excellence in my constituency.

Made by Britain was launched this summer by Secretary of State, Vince Cable MP and the Associate Parliamentary Manufacturing Group (APMG), to showcase examples of manufacturing across the UK. Every MP has been asked to nominate a company or a product that is manufactured in their constituency today.

C-TEC manufacture an extensive range of fire alarm control panels, disabled persons toilet alarms, staff protection systems, third party approved EN-54 compliant power supplies, induction loops and nurse-call systems.

Based at two sites on Stephens Way, Goose Green, C-TEC are celebrating 30years of manufacturing, employing over 120 people and exporting to over 80 countries.

The company will relocate later this year following the purchase of a new factory on Wigan’s Challenge Way industrial estate. Measuring a massive 75,000ft (the size of 3 football pitches), the new facility will provide manufacturing, office and storage space to facilitate further expansion and the recruitment of staff.

Each MP’s nomination will feature in the APMG’s Made by Britain showcase to commemorate the 160th anniversary of the Great Exhibition. The project has been partially funded by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851.

I enjoyed the tour of the factory and meeting with senior management and chatting to shop floor employees.

Despite the current economic climate that faces UK PLC, it is still the case that we are a nation that has a proud manufacturing base and too often we forget just how many successful and innovative businesses we have around us.

C-TEC is one such company with ambitious plans for the future and a commitment to Wigan. They boast a range of innovative products including the new ‘Hush Button’ fire alarm system which will reduce the incidence of false alarms in flats and apartments, potentially saving thousands of lives and placing them as a world leader in the field.

Andrew Foster, C-TEC’s Managing Director said, “I am delighted that C-TEC has been nominated for such a prestigious and important initiative. 2011 marks our 30th year of manufacturing world-class life safety products and I can think of no better way to celebrate than by flying the flag for not only the UK but also Wigan as a centre of manufacturing excellence. I am incredibly proud of the hard work and dedication of everyone at C-TEC and hope the publicity generated by the initiative will attract yet more hard-working and talented people to join the team.”

C-TEC can be found on the web here.

Monday 5 September 2011

Christmas Card 2011 Competition

Today I have written to local primary school headteachers inviting them to submit pupils’ designs for my 2011 Christmas Greetings Card.

Following last year’s inaugural competition, I am calling on pupils to submit a traditional Christmas or New Year themed design that will grace the front of my 2011 card.

Last year over 250 entries were received from pupils across the constituency. The entry by Molly Fisher of RL Hughes Primary School, Ashton in Makerfield, was judged the winner and Molly’s winning card design was sent to a number of distinguished people in the worlds of politics, business, sport and charitable sectors, including both the Prime-Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, as well as many local people working in Wigan’s public services such as the NHS and Wigan Council.

In this year’s competition, I hope that my office receives a fantastic response from local schools. Judging by last year’s entries, the children clearly put a lot of effort into their art-work so it made my job of picking the winner extremely difficult. So, I hope that the standard is even higher this year.

Submissions from Makerfield’s primary school aged children are welcomed and should be forwarded no later than Friday, 28th October 2011 to:

Yvonne Fovargue MP
Elizabeth House
Pottery Rd
Wigan WN3 4EX

Designs should be submitted on plain paper no larger than A4 size.