It’s with something of a sigh of relief that Parliament has finally risen for a (much shorter than usual) Summer Recess. It really has not been working properly, and I for one am glad to see the back of it, in the fervent hope that when we start again on 1 September the House and the Palace as a whole may be able to operate something closer to normally. We shall see.
What a rollercoaster 18 months we have had. Remember Brexit? Theresa May? 21 Tories losing the whip, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer; the leadership battle and Boris’s victory, the General Election and Tory triumph? It has all been blotted out by the Covid Pandemic which has been our overwhelming political and personal fixation for the best part of six months now. Add to all of that Boris’s near-death experience; his engagement, the new baby, moving into Downing Street and a whole host of other things. What an astonishing 18 months it has been.
All of that risks obscuring our successful delivery of Manifesto promises- on the biggest ever cash boost for the NHS, on recruiting 13,500 more nurses and 7,800 more doctors, with 40 new hospitals and upgrades to 20 more, and £200 million for new cancer screen machines. We have kept our promise on more police officers – recruiting 4,000 more officers; on schools funding – increasing funding for every child, with £14.4 billion over three years and set out a £1 billion rebuilding programme to transform schools in every region of the country. We have kept our promise to boost local transport connections – confirming a revolution in local transport, backed by £5 billion to improve bus and cycle lines. We have started reversing the Beeching cuts and announced funding to fix 50 million potholes. We have kept our promise to help those who need it most – giving the lowest paid a pay rise by providing the largest ever cash increase in the National Living Wage, and giving inflation-busting pay rises to teachers, prison officers, doctors and other vital public sector workers. Not a bad record for a Government fighting the pandemic and doing its best to keep the economy on track.
And despite everything, and ignoring the conflicting advice and complaints of the armchair epidemiologists, we have done our best to battle against the worst pandemic the world has ever seen. Sunday’s announcement of a closure of Spain, and compulsory quarantine for all returning from their holidays has been greeted by some as being too little too late; by others as an over-reaction. Some are puzzled about the travel ban to the Mainland, but not to the Balearics or Canary Islands; others welcome that slight easing to take account of regional differences within a country. I welcome the Government’s decisive action to prevent a second spike in the UK, and hope they will continue to be tough and decisive in the future.
The weather is a bit mixed, but staycationing has a great deal to recommend it; and will do much to help our embattled pub and hotel and B and B industry. I will be staying at my own very nice Cotswold Farm B and B near Corsham, at least partly because I am in isolation prior to my second hip operation on 19 August. So by the time the House is back on 1 September I should be leaping around like a spring lamb thanks to the genius of British medical science. Poor old Philippa’s the one who will get no holiday from the catering and laundry department. She will deserve a decent break as soon as all of this (hip and Covid) is over, and I promise that she will get it.
The flip side of success and prosperity in any decent society must be concern for those less fortunate and a readiness to volunteer to help.
Some good news this week for North Wiltshire. Rudloe and Colerne based Airbus (Space) signed a £500 million contract with the MOD to extend and enhance their Skynet fleet of seven satellites. Funny to think that Britain’s satellites are controlled from right here (in aptly named Skynet Drive in Hawthorn); alongside all communications for all three armed services.
The contract also covers technology development programmes, new secure telemetry (whatever that may be), tracking and command systems, launch, in-orbit testing and ground segment updates to the current Skynet 5 system. The Skynet 6A satellite will join the Skynet constellation of 7 satellites when launched in 2025.
Satellites orbiting the Globe are matched by volunteer drivers orbiting and criss-crossing Wiltshire.
In the same week as I heard from Airbus, I heard from Community First, a charity based in Devizes who inter alia run the 43 ‘Link’ schemes in Wiltshire. These are voluntary groups offering a transport and good neighbour service to local people who are in need, perhaps because they are elderly, disabled, isolated and lonely, single parents, or perhaps temporarily in need because of illness. It’s a vital safety net provided entirely by volunteers. Last year, for example, Link Schemes made 31,351 health related journeys and completed 48,027 ‘good neighbour’ tasks including collecting prescriptions and shopping.
However, because of Covid 19, the Link schemes are short of drivers since a large number of their existing volunteers are unable to drive because of age or vulnerability. So they desperately need to recruit volunteer drivers and helpers to maintain this vital service across Wiltshire. You get your mileage paid, so it’s just your time and energy that you are giving up to help people who so desperately need it. If you can, please ring 01380 722241 or email linkproject@community first.org.uk to volunteer to help.
Ours is a prosperous and successful area, and we hope to keep it that way. But there are all sorts of people who need our help. Let’s try to pay back our comfort by a bit of volunteer driving and general neighbourliness.
I may have spoken too soon about prosperity in the light of the bad news about 600 jobs to go out of 4000 Dyson employees. We do not yet quite know where these redundancies will occur but I understand it is on the retail side of things, as a result of the switch to online buying. One report indicates that there may be job losses in the customer service department in Malmesbury which, of course, is very bad news, and my team and I will do whatever we can to help constituents who may be affected.
One of the stars emerging from the Pandemic crisis must be Rishi Sunak. Both of his major statements have been ground-breaking stuff. Never can a Chancellor have had to undertake such very fundamental changes to try to preserve the Nation’s economic well-being. The Furlough Scheme alone was imaginative, essential, simple and hugely successful. That together with the other financial schemes he brought in have more or less seen us through the immediate emergency.
But there is so much worse news still to come. The economy contracted by a record 25% in March and April, and the depth of the collapse will be the worst ever seen since records began. One would need to look back to the Middle Ages - probably around the Black Death or the 100 Years War to see anything like it. And, of course, it’s not just us- it is absolutely Global.
Against that background, the war against Covid comes in three phases. Stage one was the first 100 days – lockdown; flattening out the curve; preventing the NHS being overwhelmed. There have of course been better bits and worse bits of that; but overall we have pretty much achieved what we set out to do. The second phase - which the Chancellor addressed on Wednesday - is a heroic effort to save jobs. Sadly, we will be facing a big increase in unemployment. Of that we can be certain. But the Chancellor’s new initiatives- with regard to young people, to job retention, to training and apprenticeships, to phasing out Furlough, to support for our pubs and restaurants and so much more that he was able to announce in his Statement will go a long way to limiting the pain, and to preserving the jobs which are so essential if we are to avoid a 1920’s style slump.
That will then lead very naturally into Phase three - rebuilding the economy, which will presumably form the central part of his Autumn Budget and simultaneous Public Spending Review. The hope will be that the deep and damaging collapse in the economy, may at very least be short-lived. It is important that we kick-start the recovery before too much long-term damage is done.
Looking at the fundamentals, I personally believe and hope and pray that that can be achieved. We in this country have the right essentials - the brains, the capability, the banking systems, the service capabilities, the legal systems, the time zone, for our economy to be just as stable and successful as it was before the Pandemic struck. Or to put it another way - we all want the same way of life, the same prosperity, that we had before. And if the demand is there, as it must be, then the supply will assuredly very quickly follow it.
An essential part of that must be confidence – confidence in the financial and business sectors; and consumer confidence that we can and will deliver the economy and prosperity which we all want. We need to be confident that life will get better, and that our jobs are safe. Without that we will be (understandably) fixated with safeguarding what we have got and never get the wider economy going at all. (Great news about half prices in pubs and restaurants over August - I am going to get very fat.)
And Confidence stems, at least in part, from a widespread confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I believe that Rishi Sunak has secured that confidence.
The next 100 years will see three Global geopolitical threats- from Iran, whose Shi’ite version of Islam will dominate the Middle East; from sub-Saharan Africa whose population by the year 2100 could be 6 Billion, or nearly half of the Global population; and from China whose growth, wealth and population alongside its Communist State is an ever-present threat to the World and liberal democracy.
That is why I rebelled in February against a very heavy ‘three-line whip’ and voted against allowing Huawei, who are as close to being the Chinese State as it is possible to be, from controlling our 5G networks. 5G will run every aspect of our lives- banks, public utilities, transport systems, data; and the notion of handing control of that effectively to China seemed to me to be patently absurd and wrong. I have paid various penalties since then for my rebellion, including being chucked off the Joint Committee on National Security and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. But that, I guess, is a price worth paying for our eventual (at least partial) victory announced this week that Huawei would indeed be banned from our 5G infrastructure.
China meanwhile runs concentration camps for the ‘re-education’ of up to a million Uyghur Moslems. They have imposed a form of repression in Hong King in blatant disregard of the terms of the 1997 ‘Joint Declaration’ under which we handed Hong Kong back to the Mainland. And while I am reluctant to listen to the many conspiracy theories about the origins (and intentions?) of the Covid 19 virus; I am nonetheless critical of the way China handled it and information about it, without which many western lives might well have been saved.
Meanwhile the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which sees Chinese control of ever-increasing parts of the developing world using their massive financial muscle must be viewed with some concern. As one example, they are seeking to monopolise the rare earths mined in Greenland. If they do so, they will then control of up to two thirds of the world’s rare earth deposits, one tiny part of which is necessary for every single computer and mobile phone in the world.
I am saddened by all of this, as I have been to China many times, and love large parts of their culture and their people. But there comes a time when, despite the consequences, we need to oppose things in the world which we believe to be wrong; and to counter long-term trends, like the growth of Chinese power, which may well threaten the peace and security or even prosperity of our children and grandchildren.
There will be consequences - whether in terms of a massive cyber-attack of one kind or another coming from unattributable Chinese sources; or trade attacks, as Australia have suffered since they banned Huawei. There are military threats- especially to Taiwan and the South China Seas; and I am glad about the rumoured deployment of our brand-new Aircraft Carrier, Queen Elizabeth to the Pacific region over the next year or two.
In the words of the old Chinese proverb: “Is it not better to sit up all night than to sleep with a dragon?”
The House of Commons risks becoming a sad and diminished little replica of what is often misquoted as the ‘Mother of Parliaments.’ Government governs, and we backbenchers in Parliament scrutinise what they are doing. If - for perfectly correct practical reasons - we cannot do so, then we should be clear that we are not. We otherwise risk giving false legitimacy to what the Executive are doing.
I have been back for two weeks now (on and off), and the whole place is like a ghost town in a wild west movie. It’s a bit like being on detention in school after everyone else has gone home. (Not that I ever was, of course.) In normal times, 20,000 people a day swarm around the 3 great chambers, the 50 or so committee rooms, the allegedly 34 cafeterias, bars and restaurants (I have never got around to counting them). Journalists, lobbyists, visitors, think tanks, businesses, charities. It’s a hotbed of thought and discussion about the world and politics.
Not now. The cafeterias, the committee rooms, the lobbies and corridors are either closed or so socially distanced as to make any kind of interaction with each other impossible. (Why js Parliament alone in keeping 2 metres until the summer at least?) Committees, all party groups, lobbies - all are cancelled. The Palace is closed to visitors of any kind; staff are working from home; the odd journalist wisps by like tumbleweed. Worst of all is the Chamber which is so socially distanced that only 50 people all told (out of 650) are allowed in at any one time. Half a dozen backbenchers on either side earn the privilege of quizzing ministers over great matters and decisions by applying in advance to do so and being selected in some kind of Parliamentary lottery. This week the National Security Adviser, IR35, the Loan Charge, a vast infrastructure investment programme and fundamental changes to the planning system amongst many other matters went by with precious little real Parliamentary examination. Spontaneous intervention of any kind is impossible. As for voting - well the perfectly workmanlike electronic remote voting system has been abolished in favour of a half-baked replica of physical voting through the lobbies.
So we backbenchers sit in solitary bewilderment in our little eyries of offices while the great and the good get on with whatever they want to, until the voting bell rings when we dutifully wander over to the chamber to carry out our whips’ instructions. Well not me. It is, in my opinion, quite wrong for us to pretend that this is a fully functioning scrutiny system; that we are in some way improving legislation; that we have great opportunities to advance the causes of our constituents. The physical constraints in the Palace of Westminster make all of those fundamental and vitally important democratic functions impossible. We should not be shy of saying so.
We should be upfront about the constraints and go into self-isolating lockdown. If we cannot do our jobs properly; if the Executive are getting away with things and using us as a supine cover for it; then the people should know that that is the case. So I call on the authorities to recognise that Parliament is not doing its job; to be honest about the physical impossibility of it doing so; to be frank about the Executive running the country largely unfettered at this time of National crisis; and to look forward to a time - presumably after the summer- when scrutiny can once again function for real.
The Mother of Parliaments must never be a supine or covert cover for government.
© 2021 Promoted by Nick Botterill, on behalf of James Gray, both of North Wiltshire Conservatives, 12 Brown Street, Salisbury SP1 1HE.