It is that time of year where we reflect on the past 12 months and look ahead to the next.
It is hard to escape the countless articles branding 2016 an awful year, perhaps by those shocked and upset about the UK’s vote to leave the EU, or by the American people’s choice for President.
I hope that as a society we can learn once more how to engage politely with those who hold differing views and to celebrate our differences, as well as what unites us.
The moment I look back on with most sadness is the murder of my friend and colleague Jo Cox whilst working to try to make things better for constituents. I am struck by such sadness as I think of her husband and children spending their first Christmas without her. I hope her legacy will mean a kinder way of conducting politics and political discourse.
Social media allows us to shield ourselves from views different from our own. Perhaps people have become unused to having their views challenged. I hope that as a society we can learn once more how to engage politely with those who hold differing views and to celebrate our differences, as well as what unites us.
People are surprised to learn that some of my closest friends in Parliament sit on the opposite benches. In politics, as in the wider nation, we all want the best future for our country, we just sometimes disagree about how to achieve that.
During the festive season, we reflect on those for whom this is not a happy time. I was bowled over by the generosity of those who donated to my One More Toy appeal, especially the couple who had been buying toys all year. I was able to deliver a mammoth haul to the Salvation Army, which has delivered the toys to children across our region who would otherwise have had nothing to open on Christmas Day. Thank you for your kindness.
Looking further afield, it is heartbreaking to see what is happening in Syria. There has been almost no progress in delivering the UN humanitarian plan. We need an immediate ceasefire and humanitarian access. All those involved have a responsibility to change course to protect civilians. The Foreign Secretary could not have been clearer about this in discussions with Russia. The Government is ready to offer whatever support it can in the quest for a political settlement, working with the international community.
Colleagues and I are supporting the Hands up Foundation, which pays for and equips doctors in Aleppo. Every penny donated goes to those in need. It also funds prosthetic limbs for those who have been injured in the fighting. We held a concert in Westminster, but everyone can do something to help, including hosting a dinner party. See www.handsupfoundation.org
I am looking forward to an interesting year, continuing to ensure our rural communities benefit from national policy.
The Government has announced plans to rebalance schools funding after years of rural schools losing out. Many village schools will see increases in funding of up to 10 per cent as population sparsity is taken into account. The Digital Economy Bill will bring in a Universal Service Obligation for broadband, which will treat it as an essential utility, and Ofcom’s plans to separate Openreach from BT will be welcome.
The Highways England A1 in Northumberland team will announce the route for the new dualled stretch of A1 and the improvements north of Ellingham in the spring.
I will continue work to ensure the Armed Forces Covenant works for veterans, service personnel and their families. I will also continue to try to seek a fairer deal for WASPI women, encourage the Government to plant more trees to tackle climate change, and to improve numeracy and literacy outcomes.
Finally, I would like to wish everyone a Happy New Year.