As lockdown carefully gets lifted, with Spring upon us and the vaccine being rolled out apace, including at the new Large Vaccination Centre in Penrith, there is some hope ahead. Whilst Coronavirus dominates the headlines, I am determined that other issues are given the airing they deserve. In this month’s column I discuss broadband, the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee’s Inquiry on land-based education and what that means for Newton Rigg, the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill and the great news about the re-opening of outdoor education centres.
The Government launched a wide-ranging programme to extend broadband coverage in mid-March named ‘Project Gigabit’. It should play a key role in the broader strategy to reach broadband not-spots in Penrith and The Border. I was especially pleased to see that a good number of premises across Cumbria are set to benefit as part of the first procurements to be announced. The voucher scheme, which helps drive down costs of installation, will be continued and money is in place for public buildings to be hubs for communities to connect to. As part of my ongoing ‘Better Connectivity’ campaign I have been raising this issue repeatedly with Ministers, including the Digital Minister and also the Prime Minister in Prime Minister’s Questions. I am so pleased they have listened to me and that rural areas like Cumbria are now very much on their radar for funding.
Alongside this central government funding I was delighted to see the successful progress of a local broadband project led by a group of residents in Kirkoswald who joined forces with local provider ‘Broadband for the Rural North’ (B4RN) to improve provision for the village. I have been meeting with residents and the provider in support of this. It is fantastic to see this community coming together to support the needs of all whose who live and work around Kirkoswald. Furthermore, Kirkoswald is also demonstrating a superb community spirit with a project to buy their local village shop, which will allow local people to have ownership of the facility and will maintain and develop a vital hub for the community. I stand four-square behind this local initiative as the community shop is so essential to village life.
More news on Newton Rigg this month as the Commons EFRA Select Committee, on which I sit, had a very useful inquiry session on the importance of delivery of land-based education both nationally and locally within Cumbria. We were able to ask robust questions of Askham Bryan College about their actions as they depart Newton Rigg and have asked for more clarifying information on this. It is so important for Cumbria that they do the right thing and ensure a smooth transition as we move into the next chapter of trying to secure a future for a new Newton Rigg. As a member of this Commons Select Committee, I was pleased that on a really constructive cross-party basis we were able to probe deeply into both the Cumbrian and the national situations. Our Committee has requested additional information from Askham Bryan about details concerning their acquisition of Newton Rigg and the background to their subsequent intentions to depart from Cumbria. I was pleased to secure a commitment in the Inquiry session from Askham Bryan that they agree they have a moral obligation to the learners of Cumbria to ensure a smooth transition to new educational providers. In the meantime, I continue to work with stakeholders and Government on the lifeline of continuity of local land-based educational provision here in Eden, while in parallel we work to try to secure a longer term vision of a new and rejuvenated Newton Rigg College.
Significant progress in increasing sentences for animal cruelty offences was made on 12th March as the Animal Welfare (Sentencing) Bill passed its latest Commons hurdle. The House of Lords will now have a second reading of the Bill on 16th April. The Bill would increase the maximum sentence for certain animal cruelty offences to five years and would apply to England and Wales. This is a hugely important Bill and, as a vet, I strongly support this measure to improve animal welfare. Increased sentencing will protect animals and help act as deterrent. We have duty of care to protect and look after animals with dignity and respect as fully sentient beings. Sadly, animal cruelty exists in society, and has also been linked on occasion with domestic abuse cases.
Furthermore, I took the opportunity to speak in a Westminster Hall debate on how the Coronavirus pandemic has impacted on animal welfare. In my speech I touched on the increase in demand for pets, as people are spending much more time at home, having fuelled illegal trade in animals with them being traded and transported in terrible conditions. I also paid tribute to the work of the veterinary sector and animal welfare charities who have done so much to protect animal health and welfare during the pandemic.
Positive local news to finish as Outdoor Education Centres can make plans to reopen, from the 12th April for day visits and then residential visits from 17th May, obviously dependent on the national public health picture. I have been working with colleagues from across the House on this on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Outdoor Learning and am so pleased that the Government has responded to our calls and ongoing campaign. I know from my meetings with the Blencathra Centre and Outward Bound that this will be welcome news to a sector that has been so hard hit by the pandemic. With the new plan in place, these centres can start to prepare for the return of visitors. It will also provide a welcome boost to the physical and mental health of young folk across Penrith and The Border as they can reap the rewards that outdoor education can provide.