"Dover is a beautiful place, with beautiful people – and I will fight for this town."
These were the words of Sandra Mahlo at her Cannon Street café La Salle Verte. I had organised a meeting with high street business owners, local councillors and the police. We talked about how we must all work together to look after our town. And it was clear how passionate everyone is about getting the best for Dover.
The meeting was held following a spate of break-ins and burglaries earlier this year. These crimes caused serious concern among local firms. So our police force deserve real praise for swiftly catching the culprits.
Yet there were still worries about the level of police presence in the high street. I contacted our Dover District Commander, Chief Inspector Mark Weller, and he said patrols had been stepped up in Market Square, Cannon Street and Biggin Street.
I was delighted to hear from Sandra and the others at the meeting that they had noticed the boosted police presence in town. People must feel safe when shopping in our high street.
The issue of people consuming alcohol and taking drugs in the town centre was also raised. Ch Insp Weller said the force was cracking down on this through 'Operation Urban'. He also revealed shoplifting in the high street is down 17 per cent. His team play a vital role. They know their patch inside-out and work closely with business owners and support services.
It's the nature of their job that sometimes officers will be called to deal with someone who suffers from mental health problems. Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott has shown real leadership in this area. He's given funding to Talk It Out in Deal and to Dover Outreach Centre. They work with the police to get the most vulnerable people the help they need.
Both in Dover and Deal, the police and shopkeepers are clearly passionate about protecting our high street – and I am determined to help in any way I can. In Parliament, we recently secured more funding for Kent Police – up from £279.3 million to £288 million – which is going towards 200 more officers. We need to see lots of these new recruits deployed in Dover and Deal. I have made that case to Kent's Chief Constable, who told me he was "confident the increase will be felt tangibly by the residents of Dover district".
In Deal in particular, people tell me they want more opportunities to speak face-to-face with the police. So I've asked the Commissioner to consider doubling the number of hours residents have access to the local force.
We may be living in the age of the internet and social media. Yet for so many people, the heart of our community is the high street. Our local business owners and police force are a huge part of that. We must do everything we can to support them.
Whether looking for jobs or belting out karaoke classics, people feel part of a community at Dover Big Local's hub. I went along to the Charlton Centre to meet the team, hearing how Dover Big Local and the Shaw Trust, both based in Unit 18, are helping people back into work.
The hub hosts a number of community events, including a "coffee and karaoke" morning which was in full swing during my visit. I joined in with a rendition of Ticket to Ride by The Beatles, then chatted with Shaw Trust staff members Kemi Fatola, Gerda Vaiksnoraite and Mark Hoda. They told me that 57 people are taking part in their work and health programme, of which three have found employment.
Ross Miller, chairman of the Dover Big Local Partnership, told me about the range of services being offered at the hub. This includes a jobs club, run with Southern Housing every Tuesday from 10am to 4pm, which has helped 17 people find work over the past nine months. People are also given support setting up their own businesses. Dover Big Local was handed £1 million of lottery funding, which it has been investing in the town since 2015.
It was fantastic to see the brilliant work being done at the Charlton Centre hub. We fought hard to secure the £1 million lottery funding for our town – and it's great to see Dover Big Local spending the money on projects like this.
The Shaw Trust is doing great work too, helping people in tough circumstances back into employment. This hub just goes to show how strong our community spirt is in Dover.
I have urged council chiefs to tackle traffic levels between Dover and Deal. I invited Kent County Council's transport supremo Cllr Mike Whiting and his team to Deal – so they could see for themselves how busy the A258 is.
At least 10,000 vehicles travel along the road every day – causing congestion and pollution. In the past six years alone there have been 100 accidents on the A258.
I met with Cllr Whiting, cabinet member for planning, highways, transport and waste, and his officers on Friday, May 11, explaining how many residents think a dualled spur from the A256 to connect to Middle Deal and the North End should be built. Cllr Whiting took the arguments on board – and his council officers said any new road would have to be included Dover District Council transport model.
The A258 is creaking under the huge level of traffic using the road every day. This, along with several blind corners on the route, is making the road dangerous for drivers. What's more, studies show that air pollution near Deal Castle is now worse than in some parts of central London. It's no surprise so many residents tell me that a dualled spur from the A256 to connect Middle Deal and the North End makes sense. Deal is a great place – yet it would be greater still with less traffic and less pollution in the town centre.
Research carried out by local campaign group Deal With It found nitrogen dioxide levels on the A258 measured 52.9 micrograms per cubic metre. The EU's legal limit is 40. They were taking readings near Deal Castle as part of an air quality study by Friends of the Earth. The reading was the only one in east Kent to exceed the legal limit.
A total of 228 crashes have taken place on the A258 since 2003, including more than 100 between 2010 and 2016. Over the last 15 years, 18 accidents have resulted in serious injuries. Five have been fatal.
Too often, the most vulnerable people – those who need the very best care we can offer – are treated as numbers on a spreadsheet. Targets to be met rather than individuals and patients to be put first. One misguided decision by a remote official can result in terrible pain for them and their family. Getting that put right is a key part of my job as your Member of Parliament.
I recently went to the Martha Trust in Deal to meet resident Clare Costelloe and her parents Brian and Sue. Clare suffers from a rare disease called neuro-Behcet's Syndrome that has left her blind, epileptic and wheelchair-bound.
Clare was receiving NHS Continuous Care Funding, until a review by Herefordshire Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) in November found she "no longer meets the criteria". The family was informed that payments would stop in January.
When I was first told about Clare's case, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. How could anyone deny her the vital funding she so obviously needs? I contacted health chiefs demanding the decision be immediately reversed. The health chiefs soon admitted a new review was needed. Last month, they agreed to continue Clare's vital funding.
Yet that was not all. Clare was also being denied disability benefits because she was already cared for in a "hospital or similar institution". I contacted the Department for Work and Pensions – and Clare's Employment and Support Allowance was also re-instated.
Brian and Sue were understandably angry and upset about what they had all been forced to go through. In particular, they felt it was wrong that when Clare's NHS funding was suddenly axed, no arrangement was made for payments to continue, or for alternative funding by social services.
They were absolutely right. This should never happen again to anyone else anywhere in our country. So I took that matter up with Health Ministers, calling for a new policy so people like Clare would always be looked after. And last week Health Minister Caroline Dinenage told me she is making a string of new measures to ensure "there should be no gap between NHS and local authority social care responsibilities." Also, assessments will now always be conducted by more than one person, including both NHS and social services staff.
Clare should never have been put in this position in the first place. Yet I'm really pleased that we were able to put it right. Making a difference to people's daily lives is the best part of my job. I'm also really pleased the Government has listened and acted swiftly. People like Clare should never again have funding suddenly taken away.
Brian and Sue's determination to fight for their daughter has made a real difference. They are incredible parents. There will now be a brand new safeguard for thousands of vulnerable people across the country. I'm proud to have done my bit to help make a difference.
A new public toilets block is set to be built in Dover town centre. Plans to build a single storey building on land adjacent to the Citizens Advice Bureau in Maison Dieu Gardens were given the green light last month. A formal decision notice was published on May 4.
Dover District Council's (DDC) has also now agreed to provide a "substantial contribution" to building costs after my request. I pointed out the authority was contributing to a single toilet block in Dover compared to three in Deal town. DDC has now confirmed an informal agreement for the "substantial contribution" – subject to cabinet approval over the coming months.
I want to thank the council for doing the right thing here. There is no legal obligation for them to provide public toilets and we all know finances are tight. But provision in Dover has not been good enough – not by a long way. Lots of residents have told me how awful it is if you are elderly or have medical problems or just need to go. One set of toilets in the town centre is absurd – especially with St James up and running. So I'm really pleased with this decision. Now we need to see things move forward as quickly as possible.
A boosted police presence in Dover town centre is making a big difference. I organised a meeting in Dover on Friday between police and owners of high street shops – after a spate of break-ins and burglaries earlier this year.
I praised the local force for swiftly catching the culprits and responding to concerns by increasing patrols in Market Square, Cannon Street and Biggin Street. Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Scott, Dover District Commander Ch Insp Mark Weller and local PCSOs dropped in to La Salle Verte. We met with the café's owner Sandra Mahlo, Nifties boss Nathaniel Richards and Hassan Tizaghouin who runs Charmaine's hair salon. Town councillors Chris Precious and Callum Warriner joined the meeting, along with Tower Hamlets resident June Murphy.
The spate of high street break-ins and burglaries was extremely concerning. Yet our local force deserve great credit for swiftly catching the culprits. It's great to see how Matthew Scott and Ch Insp Weller have listened to our concerns and boosted patrols in the town centre too. I was also hugely impressed by our PCSOs – they know their patch inside-out and are keen to work closely with local business owners.
The business owners also raised the issue of people consuming alcohol and taking drugs in the town centre. Ch Insp Weller said the force's 'Operation Urban' was cracking down on anti-social behaviour linked to alcohol or drug use in Dover. This is a joint operation between Kent Police and Dover District Council's community safety unit, which seeks to address crime and antisocial behaviour in the town. He also revealed that shoplifting in the high street was down 17 per cent.
It's fantastic to see our local force and business owners working together with the community to tackle crime. Both the police and shopkeepers are clearly passionate about protecting our high street – and I am determined to help in any way I can. In Parliament, we recently secured more funding for Kent Police – which is going towards 200 more officers. We need to see lots of these new recruits deployed in Dover and Deal.
Kent authorities have been told to stock thousands of anti-overdose kits after drug deaths doubled in three years – to the highest level in the UK. There were 213 drug-related deaths in the county between 2014 and 2016, compared to just 111 between 2011 and 2013.
A report published this week by Public Health England recommends the number of naloxone kits – which reverse overdose effects – needed by each local authority, based on numbers for drug users and drug-related deaths. It recommends any individual receiving treatment for opiate use – 2,210 across Kent – should be given a kit, plus extra depending on mortality rates. Public Health England has recommended Kent stock a total of 3,172 naloxone kits.
Their report, called "Fentanyl: preparing for a future threat", focused on powerful opioids following my campaign. I have been working to bring in Robert's Law – tougher sentences for those who supply fentanyl – with the mother of a Deal teenager killed after taking the deadly drug in 2016. Last year, Home Office ministers assured me they would be working with Public Health England to widen naloxone's use in the UK.
These new figures on deaths caused by drugs are really concerning. Working with Robert Fraser's mum Michelle I have seen just how devastating the trend is. Fentanyl is dozens of times stronger than heroin and it is killing tens of thousands of people each year in America. We are fighting to make sure that isn't repeated here. This is why I have been pushing for a carrot and stick approach. Firstly provide these anti-overdose drugs, because every life is precious. Secondly, punish the dealers who bring this poison to our streets. I want tougher sentences for those caught supplying it.
I also raised the issue with the National Crime Agency, the National Police Chiefs Council, the Ministry of Justice and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). The CPS recently updated its guidance for prosecutors, asking them to recommend longer jail terms to judges. The Sentencing Council has also told me they will review their guidelines.
The campaign for Robert's Law follows the death of Robert Fraser, who was 18 when he lost his life after taking fentanyl. He did not know he was taking it, having been told by a drug dealer it was similar to ecstasy. His body was discovered by his parents later that evening.
As Robert's mum Michelle said: "Robert was not an addict. He took recreational drugs like so many young people these days. But I will never get him back.
"I don't want any other parent to go through what I have. That's why I want anti-overdose kits to be more widely available, and for the people who peddle this poison to be properly punished.
"It is costing lives and sitting back and hiding – hoping it will all go away is not an option. My son's memory is worth so much more, and so is our children's future."
The people of Dover and Deal voted by a huge 62% to leave the European Union. So it's no surprise that so often when someone stops me in town they ask: "Why haven't we left yet?" And they're absolutely right. We need to get on with it.
It's vital that we deliver on the instruction of the British people and take back control of our borders, our laws, our money and our trade policy. There's no point doing this half-heartedly. We'll just end up being run by remote control by Brussels bureaucrats.
I have long argued that Brexit preparations – particularly here at the frontline in Dover and Deal – should be treated as a national priority. The truth is that after the EU referendum, we should have started major investment at the border the very next day.
Yet it seems too many Government officials just could not bring themselves to accept the Brexit vote. These defeatists who don't believe in an independent future for our island nation tell us we must keep some form of quasi-EU relationship. This is nonsense. There are many practical steps we should be taking now to solve the Brexit border challenge.
I've been making this case every chance I get in Parliament. And the Government has recently committed some cash. The £260 million allocated to HM Revenue and Customs and £395 million to the Home Office for Brexit preparations is a start – but only that. More is needed, and quickly.
This is the view of the firms who use our port. When I recently asked freight experts if we still had enough time, they said: "You would have to get a hell of a wiggle on."
So what practical steps can we take? At Dover, it makes sense to use the cameras and video technology we already have, so we can track vehicles through Automatic Number Plate Recognition. This could link up to the new customs IT system – which the Government must ensure is ready on time. We should get more firms signed up as trusted traders so trucks can just as easily cross the Channel without needless delays. Meanwhile, the new Lower Thames Crossing must be taken forward at speed and the M2/A2 upgraded and dualled all the way to Dover. We also need more lorry parking facilities built along the M20 – like at the Stop 24 services off junction 11.
The Government must not underestimate just how vital Dover is. More than 10,000 trucks pass through our port every day. We handle £120 billion (17%) of the UK's trade in goods. And this is set to grow by 40% over the next 10 years.
So this isn't speculative spending. This funding was needed anyway. Yet it is more important now than ever. The EU think they have us over a barrel because hardly anything has been done to date. So whatever happens, we need get on with it.
Customs clearance operators at the Port of Dover say Brexit can work – as long investment takes place "rather quickly". Motis Freight Services Agency general manager Tim Dixon told me an "IT-based solution" with "pre-notification", "trusted trader schemes" and checks away from the port can prevent traffic backlogs.
His views echo my own. I have written several papers detailing what's needed to prevent long queues around the Channel ports after Brexit. Mr Dixon recently showed me around the Motis facilities at the Western Docks. Major resurfacing work is taking place and will be completed in the next fortnight, increasing the site's lorry parking provision from 300 to 330 spaces.
Mr Dixon said: "I do think Brexit is workable. No-one wants to see lorries backed up for miles and that's me speaking as a Dovorian. It's going to come down to an IT-based solution, and what we do with documentation.
"But as long as the right people are speaking to each other, as they are starting to, we can continue the flow of traffic through the port, which is what everyone wants to see."
Motis has also recently upgraded its facilities for drivers. Its port building now has showers, a laundrette, a restaurant/café, a cinema room, an ATM and charging points. Mr Dixon said the firm is looking to add more sites and focussing on a number of areas across Kent, particularly along the M2/A2 corridor.
Lorry parking is one of the things the Government should be investing in now. No matter what deal is struck with the EU, it is needed and has been for years. The few places we do have like Motis are full every single day. Meanwhile lorries are often dangerously parked in lay-bys, causing a nuisance for drivers and residents.
But lorry parking won't meet all of Brexit's border challenges. At Dover we should use the camera technology we already have and link it up with the new customs IT system. We should start getting more firms signed up as trusted traders. The new Lower Thames Crossing must be taken forward at speed, and the M2/A2 corridor should be upgraded and dualled all the way to Dover.
But the Government needs to get on with it. I've been making this case every chance I get in Parliament – and will keep fighting for investment here at the Dover frontline.
People often ask me why I got into politics. There are many reasons – such as fighting for lower taxes, stronger borders, better healthcare and a fairer share of investment in the regions. Yet above all, it's because I'm passionate about giving people ladders in life. It shouldn't matter where you come from or who you know – everyone should have the chance to get on and do well.
That's why it's vital we give our youngsters the best possible education. Because schools must give children the support they need to climb as far as their talents can take them. In turn, we must give our hard-working teachers and staff all the help we can.
This time last year, there were lots of scare stories going around – with unfounded rumours about school funding 'cuts'. Yet the truth is that our schools are getting a big funding boost.
From September, Dover district secondary schools will receive £1.23 million extra – an inflation-busting 3.9% increase on the previous year. Sir Roger Manwood's will get 5.5% more per pupil in 2018/19, Astor College 5.3% more, Sandwich Technology 4.7% more, Dover Grammar for Girls 4.4% more, and Dover Christ Church Academy and Dover Grammar for Boys 4.1% more. The total school funding in Kent is more than £1 billion for the first time – the highest amount in the UK.
Historically our pupils have been thousands of pounds worse off than their London peers – an issue I have repeatedly raised with ministers. That's why I was really pleased when the new school funding formula, giving a cash boost to our area, was announced last year. It wasn't supposed to come in until 2020 – so it's great Kent County Council have listened to our calls to take action now. It means that our secondary schools will get millions more for pupils' education – for years and years to come.
This funding will help build on the huge strides we have made in recent years. Teachers across Dover and Deal have been doing an incredible job. New figures reveal that there are 153 additional good or outstanding schools in Kent since 2010 – the biggest increase across the UK. In Dover and Deal alone, 9,643 children are now attending schools rated good or outstanding – an increase of 2,432. Meanwhile, 61.6% of pupils in our area meet the expected levels in reading and maths tests, compared to 53% nationally.
The figures tell one story. Yet we must also remember how each individual teacher and member of staff makes a real difference every day. Take the outreach programme at Whitfield and Aspen, where staff go and help at nurseries across the district. They see youngsters' learning rapidly improve. It is this drive to help every child which we must do everything to support.
There is still more work to do. Yet I'm determined to keep fighting for our schools – so every youngster in Dover and Deal has the best possible start in life.
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