Over the past few weeks I have continued to be contacted by constituents who are unhappy with rail services in East Surrey. At my end, I have held meetings with GTR, alongside local Conservative councillors, to represent residents’ views and push for better services.
The main issue the railways face is that the number of passengers is currently running at about eighty per cent of pre-pandemic levels, and revenues are running at closer to sixty per cent of pre-pandemic levels.
This means that, out of £20 billion of income generated in the industry last year, £16 billion came from the taxpayer – over three times as much as pre-pandemic levels. That is why I was so disappointed with the recent strike action, which the unions called before negotiations had even properly begun.
The question is: what is the best way to achieve sustainable pay rises in the long term?
The answer can only be to improve productivity and increase passenger volumes. Strikes won’t achieve that. I do understand the cost of living challenge is tough. But low-paid rail workers will receive at least £1,200 of government support this year.
This is on top of the changes to national insurance thresholds, which come into force this month and will save workers an average of £330 a year, as well as the changes made to the Universal Credit taper rate, which will leave almost two million of the lowest paid in-work claimants £1,000 a year better off. Taken together, the lowest-paid workers in this country will receive a lot of support this year. For many, this will be over £2,000.
It would be easy as a politician to be populist and call for inflation-proofing pay rises for the public sector, as happened in the ’70s. But the people who would suffer most from that are poor households, as inflationary wage spirals force up everyday costs in a never-ending cycle, as we have seen at so many points in global history.
The Child Support (Enforcement) Bill
Last month, I was delighted to be called forward to present a Private Members’ Bill (which is a way that backbench MPs like myself can pass their own legislation). Mine is called the Child Support (Enforcement) Bill.
Far too often in this job, I’ve heard from single parents – mostly single mums – who are struggling to get child maintenance payments from their former partners. As a result, they find themselves disempowered and struggling to make ends meet.
Sixty per cent of all families in poverty in this country are single-parent families. If they could get hold of the child maintenance payments they’re owed, sixty per cent would be lifted out of poverty. This would make a material difference to their lives.
I am in awe of single mums, often working several jobs and playing the role of both parents. Where they don’t get enough support from their former partners, I think we should be firmly on their side, and that is the very purpose of my Bill.
Men in Sheds
Another highlight of last month was my visit to the Men in Sheds, at the Woodhouse Centre in Oxted. Founded in 1971 by Mrs Betty Woodhouse, the centre was established to provide employment and a sense of companionship for local retired and disabled people.
I had the chance to see some of the amazing things they were building in the workshop…and even had a go myself (thankfully, all fingers are still intact!).
I think this is such a wonderful way to bring people together in the local community, helping to reduce loneliness and isolation which, as some of you may know, is something I really care about.
Lastly, reflecting on our local Platinum Jubilee celebrations, I feel incredibly proud to be your MP. From Crowhurst to Caterham, from Lingfield to Limpsfield, from Tatsfield to Whyteleafe – I went to 24 resident-led street parties across East Surrey.
Everywhere I visited, I met a couple of exhausted people who had given everything they had to put together these tremendous events for friends and family, and I saw hundreds and hundreds of people having a glorious time.
I want to put on record my thanks to everyone who was involved in these wonderful celebrations. I hope you all take enormous pride in the joy you brought to our neighbourhoods.
Every single one of you is a local hero, and I can’t think of a more fitting tribute to our wonderful Queen.