This week it was very sad to hear that the Duke of Edinburgh has passed on, he was very much his own man whilst still managing to give his complete allegiance to the Queen. He will be remembered by many people for different reasons, ranging from the occasional controversial comments, through to the passion he had for good causes. Most notably of course is the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme that he established in 1956 and he was a founding member of the World Wildlife Fund. He formed an extraordinary partnership with our Queen in a marriage that lasted nearly 74 years and covered 14 prime ministers. Like many, I think first of our Queen and the personal loss she will be feeling, and I have posted condolences in the book of condolence on behalf of the people of Sedgefield.

This meant that political activities were rightly suspended with the major parties refraining from any campaigning for the forthcoming elections over last weekend and again on Saturday 17th, when the funeral takes place.

As I said last week, we are on recess so there has not been as much Westminster activity to update you on but I have at least been able to have some socially distant and/or virtual meetings with locals. I have joined virtual Parish Council meetings with Fishburn, Wheatley Hill and Hutton Henry & Station Town. I have also been able to catch up with the Newton Aycliffe neighbourhood Police team physically. They are a great team that are absolutely committed to doing all they can to make our town safer and I would encourage you all to report incidents when they occur and not just post on Facebook or other media. There were incidents last week that were high profile on Facebook but nobody had taken the time to actually report them to the Police! Please do not assume they know, just because you have seen it posted, they would rather get numerous reports on the same incident than none.

On Monday I had the pleasure of visiting a couple of businesses in Ferryhill who had had to delay their opening due to covid but were finally able to start trading. One was a travel agent and the other an Italian restaurant, I wish them, and all other businesses that are reopening success and that their customers act responsibly to help this be the last lockdown. Westminster opened on Monday afternoon to allow tributes to the Duke of Edinburgh before normal business resumed on Tuesday. Like many others I had a pint sitting outside in the cold on Monday night, just because I could. It really felt like a step towards normality but I really hope that, whilst this opportunity to socialise again is fabulous that everyone remembers to be sensible, so we don’t slide back. Tuesday saw me at the BEIS select committee where we raised the Mineworkers Pension Scheme with Minister Anne Marie Trevelyan and I specifically asked about the fairness of the initial negotiations. Both the miners and the Government have done well from this pension plan and this is probably a function of the guarantee the Government facilitated but the Government have seen proportionally better benefits and we were requesting a retrospective reconsideration. The Minister has offered to meet with the Trustees to discuss further. We then discussed the business of the BEIS department with Secretary of State Kwasi Kwarteng and I specifically asked about the considerations surrounding the Cumbrian mine proposal and potential offshore drilling licences for offshore oil and gas.

I had further meetings with Durham County Council around local services and the Levelling Up fund work and met with Barclays about the closure of the bank in the town centre. They remain committed to their decision to close but we also discussed future opportunities. I questioned whether there were opportunities for a different way of working in future with some form of shared facility, they said these are the sort of options being considered but current banking legislation made it difficult. We agreed to revisit this when the legislation evolved and if any changes to the Town Centre delivered opportunities we will talk further. In the meantime, I have further meetings scheduled with the local team to understand how they are supporting their customers.

On vaccinations it is great to see that we have now passed 40 million vaccinations with close to 8 million people having had two doses. We remain on track to offer vaccinations to all over 18’s by the end of July. As I have said before please take up the offer when you get the chance and continue to follow the rules and the Hands, Face Space guidelines.

Stay safe.

Paul Howell

Member of Parliament for Sedgefield