Following the incredible public support for Sir David Attenborough’s call to arms to back greater protections in our oceans during the BBC’s recent Blue Planet II, North Wiltshire MP James Gray took steps to press the Government to be unrelenting in its efforts to lead the world in marine conservation and establish a ‘Blue Belt’ of marine protected areas in all of the world’s oceans.
Mr Gray told fellow MPs during his Westminster Hall debate on the Blue Belt Programme and Marine Protected Areas yesterday that: “The Government’s Blue Belt Programme is a fantastic opportunity for us to do what is right in in the waters around Great Britain, Northern Ireland, and our 14 Overseas Territories”.
The Government launched the Blue Belt Programme in 2016 with the aim of working with the UK’s Overseas Territories to create a network of Marine Protected Areas covering some two million square miles of marine environment. Already, Marine Protected Areas have been established around South Georgia & South Sandwich Islands, St Helena and Pitcairn. The Government has further committed to designate Marine Protected Areas around Ascension and Tristan da Cunha by 2020.
Mr Gray also said: “The important point about Brexit is that it must not mean a lessening of any of the environmental standards in our oceans. Her Majesty’s Government must commit to ensuring that they are all higher than would have been the case had we remained a member of the EU”.
“I was honoured and delighted to welcome leading representatives of Inuit, Gwich’in and Saami peoples of the Arctic to Parliament, for what I believe is the first time in its thousand-year history. I was incredibly moved by their personal testimonies about how their lives are being impacted by the effects of climate change and development in the Arctic”.
Mr Gray was speaking after the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Polar Regions hosted a meeting in Parliament, which gave Okalik Eegeesiak (Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Council), Jannie Staffansson (who works for the Saami Council), and Sarah James (an elder of the Gwich’in Nation) a rare opportunity to speak directly to British parliamentarians about how they are adapting to changes in the Arctic. The speakers were brought to London by WWF UK.
The UK is the Arctic’s nearest neighbour and has a long history of political and economic ties to the region, but, like many other developed nations, it has also been a source of pollution that has affected life in the Arctic and contributed more broadly to global climate change (the effects of which are much more impactful in the far north). There are some 4 million people living in the Arctic, around 500,000 of whom belong to one of the region’s many indigenous groups.
Mr Gray added: “If the UK is to be a good neighbour, Parliament and Government needs to listen to voices from the Arctic and do what it can to support a more inclusive approach to development in the region. I hope that this will be reflected in the Government’s revisions to the Arctic Policy Framework next year”.
North Wiltshire MP James Gray paid a visit to the British Forces Post Office Headquarters last week in his capacity as Patron of the uK4u Thanks! charity to oversee the final stages of ‘Operation Christmas Box’.
Mr Gray said: “the charity, established in 2005, provides a morale boosting Gift Box to all unaccompanied UK military personnel when on operational activities overseas on Christmas Day each year, the contents of which are selected by members of the MOD Christmas Box Committee.
At the height of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, 24,500 boxes were produced and sent out to operational troops across the globe and since 2005 over 231,000 boxes have been produced. It really is a phenomenal achievement.
The role of the BFPO has grown in the last decade to distribute the boxes around the world, this year delivering to 67 countries. It was wonderful to see Operation Christmas Box in action, boxed up and ready to arrive with our troops in time for Christmas and I am so thankful to the BFPO, without whom this venture would not be possible.”
The Brexit negotiations seem to be nearing a denouement, allowing us to move on to the - perhaps easier - territory of trade talks. Mutual rights for each other’s citizens seems easy. The Irish Border question is trickier. But the border having been open since the 1920s (with the exception of during the Troubles), it should not be beyond the wit of man to devise a solution. Smuggled goods and illegal immigrants would both remain precisely that, and therefore unable to enter the UK’s mainstream. Smugglers and people traffickers exist already, and are of course simply breaking the law.
The Brexit Bill is much more troublesome. I do absolutely accept that Britain, as a responsible nation must meet our old Treaty obligations. We must separate out our assets and liabilities, as would any business which was de-merging. That is a pretty technical matter for accountants. I may be persuadable that some of the obligations we entered into while we are members should remain a partial liability (although some of them sound pretty questionable.) But should there be a further ‘good will’ sum on top of that? £50 Billion sounds to me excessive. But to look at it another way, it’s about three to four years’ worth of our net contributions, and so may be the price we have to pay to escape from the smothering octopus of the EU. We will know more within days.
However, if we are generous with our Brexit Bill, I will be even less inclined to accept the deep cuts in our defence spending which are rumoured. I have been giving the Government a very hard time over this in recent days and weeks, and have promised to rebel over it unless they listen. Perhaps that is why following a dressing down by the permanent secretary in the MOD last week, Chief of the General Staff pulled out of a breakfast briefing I was hosting this Wednesday. The permanent secretary may well be nervous of 60 or so MPs on the warpath.
The Chief of the Air Staff knew no such nervousness when he came into Parliament last week for a grand reception in Mr Speakers State Apartments followed by a simply superb parade by the Queen’s Colours Squadron and RAF Band. It was in celebration of the centenary (to the day) of the Royal Assent to the Act establishing the RAF, the original which we had on display. I was proud to take the salute alongside CAS and Viscount Trenchard, the grandson of the founder of the RAF. What a great occasion.
The fact is that the world is a more dangerous place than it has ever been; and we simply cannot afford to cut our forces any further. They are stretched to the limit, and the Treasury must dig deep and pay up. We spend 2% of GDP on defence at the moment- the NATO minimum. Many of us would like to see that progressively rise to 3% if we are to meet our international obligations and keep our shores safe.
In amongst all of that comes the very welcome Harry and Meghan news. Nothing cheers the Nation up so much as a good old Royal Wedding knees-up. When it comes next Spring, we may well be in great need of it.
We all wish Their Royal Highnesses a long and happy marriage.
“The Arctic and the North Atlantic have been central to Britain’s strategic approach to the world for many decades, but especially in the Second World War and Cold War,” North Wiltshire MP James Gray told the House of Commons Defence Select Committee last week.
“In recent years, NATO seems to have turned its attention away from the Arctic and the High North in favour of the Middle East and elsewhere in the south. I just think that that is a significant strategic gap… a risk, at least, that there are threats in the Arctic that NATO and the British Government are ignoring,” he added.
Mr Gray was giving evidence to the Defence Committee at the first public session on the re-launched sub-Committee inquiry on ‘Defence in the Arctic’. The initial inquiry started last December, under Mr Gray’s chairmanship of the sub-Committee, but Parliament was dissolved before it could report.
Mr Gray, who subsequently moved up from the Defence Committee to join the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy praised the sub-Committee, for re-opening the inquiry, saying: “I am delighted that the Defence Committee has decided to take forward the Arctic inquiry. I do think that the Committee’s report has the opportunity to be quite a significant stone thrown into the pond created by melting ice.”
© 2018 James Gray MP, House of Commons, London, SW1A 0AA