I would like to take the opportunity to wish all my constituents a Happy New Year, in the hope that 2021 will bring more positive news than 2020. The fight against Covid-19 has dominated so much of 2020 and the recent approval and start of rollout of two vaccines does reveal some light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, the nationwide lockdown announced on 4th January comes as a necessary response to the new, more transmissible, strain of the virus. This has included a national closure of schools that must now move to remote provision, except for vulnerable children and the children of critical workers. In other big national news, I was very pleased to see that the Prime Minister and his negotiating team managed to secure a trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve and that it passed through the House of Commons on Wednesday 30th December. No matter which way you voted in the Referendum, I think that we can all look forward to a positive future post-Brexit and very much hope the country can come together and move forward putting the divisions of the past behind us. On a local level, I was deeply disappointed with the outcome of the Strategic Review into Newton Rigg College, that it was not able to formally approve any of the bids that came forward.
I know the past year has been very tough for people and businesses across the length and breadth of Penrith and The Border and I will continue to fight for Government support. The recent news that the whole country has entered lockdown will be difficult news for all of us. Whilst this lockdown is unwelcome, it is necessary to protect our NHS which is under more strain than at any time since this crisis began. I have been regularly meeting with local NHS leaders to discuss the pressures that local services face. It is important we all play our part in following the Public Health guidelines while the vaccine is progressively rolled out to everyone.
I understand the dismay of many that schools have been closed nationwide. The decision was not taken lightly and the Prime Minister was clear that the Government’s reluctance to do so was because every day in education is beneficial to a child’s life chances. I have been working closely with my fellow Cumbrian MPs, and the Department for Education on this. I would like to pay tribute to teachers and all school staff across Cumbria for all their hard work and dedication to their pupils this past year and as they adjust to virtual learning once again and the physical provision of support to vulnerable children and the children of critical workers.
I was deeply saddened just before Christmas that the Strategic Review of Newton Rigg College was unable to approve any of the bids that came forward. However, the fight to save Newton Rigg College continues. I have already met on a number of occasions with the Further Education Minister to again press for the college’s future and also with the Further Education Commissioner’s Office to discuss the outcome of the review. We have now been given a short window of opportunity to find a positive solution for the campus and I am actively leading discussions with stakeholders as we speak. I have also met again with both bidders and I am strongly supportive of what they are doing to secure a future for the campus, and am encouraging them to draw in support from across our region to achieve a positive outcome. I will continue to work closely with them on this. In addition, I will be pushing the Further Education Commissioner’s Office and Askham Bryan to be reasonable with the time scales and negotiations for this; Askham Bryan as an institution with charitable status has a moral duty to the students, the staff and the Cumbrian community, to facilitate a smooth transition to a new provider.
The New Year also brings a new dawn for the UK outside of the EU. Having now left the transition period with the EU, the UK can now move forward to having control of its laws, its borders and its fishing waters. Disentangling from the EU is a process that has taken a number of years but the UK can still benefit from a close and friendly relationship with the EU based on trade and shared values.
It is vital that all sectors are supported in this post-Brexit world. For example, in the agricultural and food production sector which is so important to our local economy. I questioned the Government on this very subject in Parliament just before the Christmas break. Support for our farmers played an important role in the UK-EU trade deal, with a commitment of no new tariffs being applied to produce. The UK once again has the ability to make its own trade deals and I believe that we are well placed to take advantage of new markets overseas. I will continue to stand up for our fantastic Cumbrian farmers who produce food to world-leading production and animal welfare standards.