A few months ago Michelle Fraser came to see me at one of my surgeries to talk about her son. Robert had been killed after unknowingly taking a deadly drug called fentanyl. He was just 18 years old.
Michelle's love for her son shone through at that meeting. Robert meant everything to her and had been taken at such a young age. Yet she refused to despair and give up hope. From the first moment it was clear Michelle was a fighter. That she wanted justice for her son – for him to leave a legacy. I was determined to do all I could to help.
Firstly, we've been spreading the word about the dangers of fentanyl – a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than heroin. Just three grains of this hidden poison can be enough to cause death. Robert was by no means an addict. This could have happened to anyone's son or daughter. Fentanyl killed 20,000 people in the US last year, up from 3,000 three years before. Deaths here have also increased in recent months.
We've been working with our local police force too. Kent Police's head of substance misuse, DCS Tom Richards, agrees we should find a better way of regulating fentanyl. Yet we also need more police on the streets to stop the dealers. So it's welcome that last week our campaign to boost local police funding was won – with an £8 million secured – and that our Police and Crime Commissioner plans to recruit 200 more officers.
And now we have taken a significant step on the road to creating "Robert's Law" – which would mean tougher sentencing for those who supply fentanyl. We want the Drug Offences guideline to be revised, including fentanyl for the first time and placing it in the most serious category for harm. That would increase minimum jail terms from three years to six. "Potency" should be included among aggravating factors, meaning longer jail terms in general.
In a letter last week, Sentencing Council chairman Lord Justice Treacy agreed with me and promised a review would commence "shortly". He has also asked the Director of Public Prosecutions to "consider issuing any guidance to prosecutors that may be appropriate" in the meantime. He said the issue of fentanyl and the sentencing of cases involving it will be fully considered during discussions to revise the guideline. This is encouraging news.
If we keep up the fight and push through these changes to the law, they will send an instant and powerful message to drug dealers: Do not even think about getting involved with this stuff – you will be punished for the misery you inflict.
Throughout this fight, Michelle's bravery has been incredible. She is determined to save lives and make Robert's Law a reality. As Michelle says: "That means my son mattered. That can be my boy's legacy."
I was given a tour of Betteshanger Park's new Visitor Centre ahead of its opening later this year. Construction restarted in September at the Hadlow Group-owned Sandwich Road site, where the £9.5m building taking shape is as long as London's iconic Gherkin tower is tall.
Set among the 250-acre country park, it will eventually be home to Kent Mining Museum, a green energy centre, cycle hire and change facilities, learning and conference spaces, a shop, a café and outside seating and decking. There will also be new mining-themed play equipment to extend the existing play area, and Hadlow College's award-winning RHS Hampton Court Palace Flower Show garden 'Green Seam'.
I was shown around by project director Richard Morsley, development co-ordinator Tamasin Jarrett and head of heritage and visitor experience Darran Cowd. Things are really starting to take shape – and what a wonderful space it will be. There will be a variety of activities for people of all ages to enjoy. That's alongside fascinating local history, a proper tribute to the brave mineworkers of the Dover and Deal area. The team is moving things forward brilliantly. The project is yet another sign of the sort of investment we are now getting around here.
The £9.5 million scheme to transform the 121-hectare derelict colliery was brought to a halt last year due to problems building on a spoil heap. But work restarted in September and director Richard Morsley, who helped deliver the Turner Contemporary gallery in Margate, insists it is now progressing apace. He said the building will be opened to the public towards the end of 2018.
We've been fighting hard to get more money for our police and local services. Everyone knows that savings have needed to be made in recent years. It was the only way of dealing with the mountain of crippling debt left by Labour. Yet here in Kent the local authorities have done an incredible job. Rather than go on wild borrowing sprees, they've worked hard to balance the books.
Of course, we need to speak up when we think they've got something wrong. That's why we fought hard against proposals to slash subsidized bus services in Kent. The council did the right thing, listened to public concern and reversed the decision.
Yet the money they need to run public services properly must come from somewhere. That's why I and fellow Kent MPs have been battling more funding for local services and met with Ministers this week. We felt the funding being offered to Kent this financial year wasn't enough – and demanded it be increased.
So I'm delighted that the Government listened to our case and boosted Kent County Council's "core spending power" by £26.9 million to £938.1 million for the coming financial year. KCC was also handed an extra £3.9 million for social care spending.
Kent Police's funding was boosted too, from £279.3 million to £288 million. I've written to Matthew Scott, Kent's impressive Police and Crime Commissioner, calling on him to use this opportunity to boost police presence in Dover and Deal. The more bobbies on the beat the better.
In Deal in particular, residents tell me they want more opportunities to speak face-to-face with the police – the Deal Police Station front counter is only open two hours a day, Monday to Friday. So I've asked the Commissioner to consider doubling the number of hours residents have access to the local force.
We've achieved some real victories on local funding. Yet there is still more to do. I also met this week with Immigration Minister Caroline Nokes. The Home Office owes KCC nearly £5 million for caring for unaccompanied asylum seekers this financial year.
I have also written to Home Secretary Amber Rudd on the matter. My letter, signed by nine fellow Kent MPs, calls for KCC to be given additional funding to cover the costs of caring for the refugees.
In recent years Kent has cared for nearly a quarter of all unaccompanied asylum seeking children in the UK – and the council has had to cover the soaring costs. Meanwhile, we have handed over more than £200 million to the French to spend in Calais, where most of these vulnerable people are coming to Britain from. It's not fair for taxpayers in Kent to shoulder so much of the burden.
We're making progress but we need to keep the pressure up to ensure the Government invests more in our area – particularly at the Dover frontline.
I am putting pressure on schools ministers to confirm there will be no forced redundancies at Goodwin Academy. I met with Education Minister Lord Agnew and the Regional Schools Commissioner Dominic Herrington last month to express his concerns about the school's financial situation.
Following recent reports regarding the Goodwin Academy, I have now written to Lord Agnew and Mr Herrington seeking assurances. My letter says: "As you know, I raised my concerns over the Trust's financial situation when we met last month. I was reassured that the Goodwin Academy's staff and pupils would not be affected by the issues with the Trust.
"As such, I urge you to provide the Goodwin Academy with extra funding, so that no forced redundancies have to be made. We must continue to provide a good education to the pupils at the school – they must not be made to suffer."
I also held crunch talks with the SchoolsCompany Trust's interim chief executive Angela Barry last Friday (February 9th). I told Ms Barry that I was extremely concerned at reports that some jobs are at risk at the school. It is clearly unfair for hardworking staff to suffer through no fault of their own. They have done so much to drive the school forward over the past few years.
We must not forget how far the school has come, with £25 million of investment delivering a state-of-the-art new school building. Now there is a huge demand for places in Year 7. Goodwin Academy really is a school transformed. We must ensure we build on its success so far.
The proportion of young people in Dover and Deal applying to universities has soared since 2009. Around one in three – 29% – of 18-year-olds in the area had applied by the UCAS deadline in January this year, compared with 23% in 2009. That is incredibly encouraging.
But there are other paths too. Apprenticeships and technical qualifications have rocketed and they are getting more investment than ever. It means every youngster has the chance to get on in life. More than 4,000 apprenticeships have been created in Dover and Deal since 2010. It demonstrates the work done to ensure young people from all backgrounds can make the most of their talents.
Across the UK, university applications from disadvantaged students hit record highs at 22.6%. There were record numbers from state schools too – 90% of the total and 77% of those attending Russell Group universities.
Over the last year the Government has introduced further measures to reform student financing. It announced a major review to ensure courses offer value for money, froze the tuition fee cap, and raised the repayment threshold to £25,000 from this April, saving graduates £360 a year. Further reforms through the Higher Education and Research Act will require universities to publish demographic data on students, shining a light on institutions which need to do more to widen access.
Meanwhile there were more than 1.1 million apprenticeship starts between May 2016 and December 2017. Higher-level apprenticeships in 2016/17 shot up 35% compared to 2015/16.
Forget a new tunnel to France – let's get the Port of Dover and Kent's roads ready for Brexit first. While it is welcome that the French want to keep boosting cross-Channel trade, it's vital we focus on the investment that is needed "right here, right now" at the Dover frontline.
This comes after Eurotunnel chief executive Jacques Gounon wrote to the UK Government welcoming Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson's suggestion of a new fixed link between Britain and France. It's great that the French want to keep boosting cross-Channel trade. Yet with Brexit just 13 months away, it's vital we focus on the investment that is needed right here, right now on Kent's roads and at the Dover frontline. That means building more lorry parking facilities on the M20, the Lower Thames Crossing taken forward at pace – and most importantly the dualling of the A2.
Boris is right to think big, plan for the future and call for greater investment in cross-Channel trade. Yet even Eurotunnel admit that only half of the current tunnel's capacity is being used. That's why we must invest now to make sure our roads and infrastructure are ready on day one for Brexit. We cannot allow the people of East Kent to be subjected to tailbacks and misery on the roads to the Channel Ports.
We all rely so much on the internet these days. Whether it's for keeping in touch with our friends, ordering shopping, watching Netflix or building up a business, we all need decent broadband. It's become an essential part of modern life.
That's why I have been campaigning for better broadband in Dover and Deal – particularly in the villages where speeds in some areas were painfully slow.
For example, residents in places like Lydden and Temple Ewell had internet speeds of less than two megabytes per second – ten times slower than parts of Dover itself. It caused real problems. Children needed it for school, parents needed it for work, and businesses needed it to function. Online gaming and other multimedia weren't even options for some residents. And they were endlessly fobbed off by those who were supposed to be fixing the problem.
I kept on at BT Openreach – saying they needed to get this sorted. Eventually they gave a commitment to install a street cabinet with new fibres in Canterbury Road, Lydden, on the southern edge of Chunnel Plant Hire's depot. Last month Kent County Council confirmed the cabinet is at last in place and residents can now ask to be connected to it.
The speed of KCC and Openreach's approach to this was more dial-up than superfast – so I'm delighted the cabinet is now up and running and residents can get connected to proper broadband. Now we need to see improvements in places like Eastry, Mill Hill and Capel.
I've long campaigned on this issue because I know how vital good internet is for all of us – and will only become more so in the future. Every chance I get I tell ministers how frustrating slow internet is for people in Dover and Deal and that it needs to be improved across the whole area. So I am glad they have acted. The Government has now made a commitment that by 2020, everyone will have a legal right to high speed broadband. A £1.7 billion project has also been rolled out to areas deemed "not commercially viable" by industry. This has reached more than 4.5 million premises, mostly in rural areas.
And we're seeing improvements already. New official figures show that Dover and Deal are above average for superfast speeds. According to the statistics, 92.6% homes in our area are able to access superfast broadband, compared to 91.4% across the UK. In Dover and Deal, just 2.1% of homes are unable to receive speeds of at least 10 megabytes per second, compared to 3% nationally.
Since those figures were compiled last May, the Government has confirmed that 95% of the UK now has access to superfast broadband.
Great progress has been made in recent years. Now we need to see a fully connected country. And that includes access to decent broadband right across our corner of Kent.
Steel roof beams are up at the new Dover leisure centre as work continues to progress "on schedule". I visited the Honeywood Parkway site on Friday (February 2). I was joined by Roger Walton (Director of Environment and Corporate Assets at Dover District Council) Rika Hemachandra (Designer Manager at BAM Construction) and Lee Tucker (Senior Site Manager at BAM Construction).
Mr Tucker told me there are around 45 workers on site, including three apprentices from the local area. Foundations and piling began over Christmas and ground beams will be down by the end of this week. Despite recent wet and windy weather, he said work was "on schedule" ahead of a planned opening date of February 2019. Construction should be finished by Christmas.
It was great to have a look round the new leisure centre site. So much progress has been made already. A new leisure centre in Dover was badly needed – and seeing exactly where all the new facilities will fit in has really brought it all to life. It's another sign that our corner of Kent is finally getting the investment it deserves – more than £400 million since 2010. With St James about to open and the seafront regeneration underway, the brighter future we all want is on the horizon.
The new £26 million Dover leisure centre will feature a competition-standard eight-lane swimming pool, with spectator seating for 250 people. There will be a learner pool with a movable floor, a four-court sports hall, squash courts, a multi-function room, a fitness gym with 120 stations, fitness studios, a clip 'n' climb wall and a café. The plans also include two outdoor 3G artificial pitches for five-a-side football and at least 250 parking spaces.
The project will replace the original Dover Leisure Centre in Townwall Street, which opened in 1976. It will be demolished when the new one opens and U have already met new site owners Citycourt about plans for using the land for more St James parking provision, alongside additional shops.
Things really are moving forward quickly for Dover. We must protect our existing high street and find better ways to link it to the seafront. Yet we should also remember how far we have come. Where once stood Burlington House and the ugly multi-storey car park, there is now a brand new shopping and cinema complex. The district council deserve great credit for all their hard work. Brick by brick, Dover's fortunes are changing.
I enjoyed a delicious pint of locally-brewed beer while opening the 25th White Cliffs Festival of Winter Ales. I joined scores of fellow beer enthusiasts at Dover Town Hall on Friday.
This year's event – run over two days by the Campaign for Real Ale – features 70 real ales, of which more than half are from Kent breweries.
Nothing beats the taste of a pint of real ale at Dover beer festival. I particularly enjoyed the amazing ale on offer from Ripple Brewery. I was delighted to open this year's festival – which seemed busier than ever. It's great to see Dover buzzing with so many people having a great time.
The event in Biggin Street was held over Friday, February 2, and Saturday, February 3.
People in Dover and Deal have the chance to take place in two conservation projects as part of the Great British Spring Clean. I am supporting environmental charity Keep Britain Tidy's annual campaign – which this year features a beach clean in Walmer and a litter pick in Dover.
Last year's events drew more volunteers than ever, with 300,000 people collecting 70,000 wheelie bins of rubbish across the UK over a single weekend. I grabbed a litter picker at a Great British Spring Clean event in Westminster last week – and am encouraging his constituents to sign up this year.
Litter is a blight on our beautiful corner of Kent. Everyone should be able to enjoy our stunning surrounding without them being spoilt by piles of rubbish. That's why we need as many people as possible to take part in the beach clean and litter pick this year. We have a great community spirit here in Dover and Deal – so let's get together and help protect our environment.
A community clean of Walmer Beach takes place at The Strand between 9.30am and 11am on Sunday March 4. In Dover, a litter pick at Old Park Hill Nature Reserve in Monks Way takes place between 10am and 3pm on March 4. People can register for both events at www.keepbritaintidy.org/gbspringclean.
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