James GRAY   Conservative MP for North Wiltshire

Weekly Column

Prosperity and Training

We are economically so very fortunate in North Wiltshire – minimum unemployment (amongst the lowest constituencies in the land); prosperous businesses; high disposable income. We should be glad about that, but never take it for granted. And nor - as the Heads of Malmesbury  Secondary and Primary schools reminded Schools Minister Nick Gibb MP when we met him last Wednesday to discuss education funding – should we forget that even in an ostensibly leafy shire area like this, there are still significant pockets of deprivation.

Successful businesses, of course, don’t just happen. They take a huge amount of enterprise and energy.  I was torn by the Chancellor’s NIC announcements in the Budget last week. On the one hand, we have to encourage enterprise and risk-takers, and small businesses and the self-employed are at least partly the life-blood of that prosperity. Yet their lower National Insurance Contributions were originally intended to compensate for their lack of state pension, which has now been corrected. And then there is the question of why those who are employed by businesses should be taxed more than, and therefore effectively cross-subsidise, self-employed people who may well be doing an identical job. Nonetheless, I do believe that our Manifesto commitment must be sacrosanct, and I very much welcome the Chancellor’s decision not to proceed with the Class 4 NIC measures set out in the Budget.

Prosperity also needs skills, so I was delighted to welcome Sir James Dyson’s proposed Research and Development and training facility at Hullavington, and the further development of his Design and Engineering College. We are woefully short of engineers, and only determination and enterprise like his will correct it. It was great to visit the £250 million Defence Technical Training College at Lyneham on Thursday morning, and to see the superb training which the Military give our young men and women, and the skills which they can of course use when they go back to civilian life.

That evening, I thoroughly enjoyed handing out the certificates and trophies at the Wiltshire College Apprenticeship Awards, and hearing about the superb efforts which the winners put in to their apprenticeships. It was National Apprenticeship Week, designed to celebrate these youngsters who are the James Dysons of the future.

It was announced recently that a huge investment is to be made by the Government in land-based education at Lackham (as well as rebuilding Wiltshire College’s Salisbury campus.) Farming and forestry, animal husbandry, gamekeeping, equestrian business and other land-based training is something which we in rural Wiltshire can contribute to British society, and I salute the determination and drive of the outstanding principal, Amanda Burnside and her whole team for achieving it.

So we are fortunate in having such fine businesses and prosperity here in North Wiltshire, but in all of these ways, we also make a great contribution to the training and education of our young people and future business leaders both here and across the land.

My week

Here’s a flavour of my (rather defence-dominated) last week.

27/2. Up to London to escape from a hectic constituency weekend. Meeting with MOD to discuss my Military Assistant, Lieutenant-Colonel Longbottom who has ruptured his spleen on an Armed Forces Parliamentary trip to the Falklands. Survived Afghanistan but now injured by a flying luggage trolley in a helicopter downdraft. How ironic. Chair Westminster Hall debate on NHS as one of Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen. Dinner at my antiquated but much loved club, Pratts.

28/2. Commons Defence Committee for 2 hours grilling Sir John Parker over the RN shipbuilding programme. We have 19 operational warships. Far too few. As Chairman of Parliamentary group for Mongolia meet our Ambassador, then lunch with Raytheon to discuss RN defence matters. Chat to head of Parliamentary Archives about displaying RAF Act to celebrate its 100th anniversary in a splendidly obscure cobweb-ridden eyrie high in Victoria Tower, then an hour discussing EU Army ambitions, and how to thwart them. Appear on BBC West to welcome Dyson’s expansion in Hullavington, drinks with Parliamentary Defence group, which I chair, with an Air Marshal, then dinner with Baroness Scott and other local MPs to hear about plans for the RA Museum on Salisbury Plain.

1/3. Radio Wilts at 8 to discuss Dyson, Chair a Statutory Instrument Committee on fracking, meeting with splendid King Abdullah of Jordan to discuss Syria, a rather lacklustre PMQs, chair a meeting to quiz Scandinavian Ambassadors about Defence in the Arctic, Chat to the RN about how to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the WRENS, then dinner with a couple of constituents.

2/3. See Sir Nicholas Soames about a visit by the Household Cavalry, then a morning at the desk wading through paper. Back to Wiltshire for a relatively peaceful weekend including dentist in Corsham- v relaxing not having to do or decide anything but leave it all to the expert. Trip to Bristol to appear on Sunday’s Politics Show, then speak to the local Tories AGM in Castle Combe; Beaufort  Point to Point races at Didmarton and while Philippa is away a great deal of looking after animals and writing and reading in my Constituency office.

6/3. Lunch with Thames Water (I am proud that Ashton Keynes is the first visible, and Cricklade the first navigable part of Thames). Chair a meeting with Norwegian MOD and Ministers to discuss NATO in the Arctic, thence dinner with the speakers.

7/3. Breakfast with BBC West, then chair Committee Stage of a Private Members Bill about registering farriers. 2 hours on Defence Committee to discuss Northern Ireland, and dinner with an Admiral to hear about current RN capabilities- far less than they ought to be.

8/3. The Budget Statement. Take Heads of Malmesbury Schools in to see Minister Nick Gibb to lobby over better funding, cup of tea with Liam Fox over trade matters, chair a meeting about Turkey and dinner in the Cabinet War Rooms. Must do more in the Chamber – these myriad meetings tend to get in the way. A busy- and I hope influential- week.

Long Live Labour

There’s an important balance in the Great British Parliamentary democracy. It prevents dictatorship, or over-dominance of one interest group or another. We are a pragmatic, centre of the road, decent fair play sort of people, who dislike extremes. So when people say to me (as they very often do) “You must be cock-a-hoop. The Tories are 18 points ahead in the polls, the economy is strong, you won your Brexit vote, Teresa May is achieving pretty universal admiration and support. Everything’s going your way,” I of course agree with them. Things are indeed pretty good for my Party.

And now we have the Copeland by-election result to prove it.  Trudy Harrison won it by 2000, the seat having been held by Labour for 80 years at least. It is the best by-election result for the governing party since Worcester in 1878, and it brings the total of Tory women MPs in the Commons to a record 70. (It was 17 in 2005.) So a lot to celebrate there.

But I also celebrate the Stoke on Trent by-election where Labour held on, despite an apparent strong challenge from UKIP (whose absurd Leader, Mr Nuttall made a complete Horlicks of it all.) Not only does it put UKIP firmly back in its box; but it also shows that Labour are not quite dead (at least not yet.) I also rejoice for my friend Labour MP Ruth Smeeth who masterminded the Labour campaign there, with marked success. We need a reasonable, decent Opposition if we are to hold by our standards of decency and moderateness.

They are the people who should be holding the Government’s feet to the fire, not ageing has-beens like Tony Blair, Michael Heseltine and John Major who launched themselves into the Brexit debate this week. Who asked them anyhow? And what a cheek for them to suggest that they have some kind of a right to overturn the will of the people so clearly expressed both in the Referendum, and then in our elected House. Their opportunity comes from the failure of Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.

Sir Gerald Kaufman, the Father of the House, died on Sunday. He together with Ken Clarke (the new Father) and Beast of Bolsover Denis Skinner all arrived on the same day in 1970, their precedence being settled by the precise time when they swore the oath of allegiance. All three doughty fighters know that it is their business, their duty, to disagree with each other and with the government over issues great and small. Thesis and antithesis produces sensible synthesis. We need a strong Opposition to ensure that all of our interests are properly represented in Parliament.

Local Amenities

Stephanie Millward from Box was the cause of some teasing 10 years ago now, when I met her at the entrance to Parliament, and escorted her arm-in-arm down to the Terrace. Some of my jealous MP friends refused to believe that this glamorous young woman really was a constituent in to see me about MS matters. Since then, of course, she has become a great local hero, most recently winning two swimming gold medals in the Rio Paralympics. That feat was marked last week with the opening of the Springfields Community Campus in Corsham, and the renaming of the swimming pool after Stephanie. (She was heading off to London afterwards to collect her well-deserved MBE).

It is a mark of the huge success of Wiltshire Council that under the very able leadership of another MBE, Baroness (Jane) Scott of Bybrook they were able to find £16million to spend on the Community Campus, and that they are trying to find the funds to do something similar in other towns across Wiltshire. (I lobbied Jane and her Deputy Councillor John Thomson hard on behalf of Royal Wootton Basset and Cricklade, both of whom are in negotiation over their campuses). Amongst other things, Wiltshire Council brought all six local authorities who used to govern Wiltshire together into one, and amongst other savings got rid of a very large number of redundant buildings. Local Government have a great deal of power to make sure that council taxpayers’ money is spent sensibly in ways like this, and Wiltshire Council certainly do so.

The vibrancy of our High Streets needs more than just well targeted spending. We also need to keep our business rates under control if we are to allow high street shops to thrive. I have been lobbying Chancellor Philip Hammond for them, and for riding schools locally who are also facing sharp business rate rises. At very least I hope that any necessary increases will be phased in sensitively.

And we must not allow our market towns and villages to sprawl. I have reacted strongly to the renewed planning application for hundreds of houses and a supermarket at Marsh Farm just outside Royal Wootton Bassett (as well as several around Chippenham). The Council really must not allow it, nor the Planning Inspector. It would ruin the High Street in this little town, whose very global fame comes from the activity down its High Street. You only need to look at a few other local towns, who have allowed out of town shopping. Their High Streets look like ghost towns, populated largely by charity shops, mobile phone shops and travel agents. Don’t let Bassett get like that.

Local authorities have great powers and duties – taxes, planning, economic development. In an area like this it is vital that they use those powers to retain as well as enhance and improve the wonderful town and village environment, which is why we all came here in the first place. If we wanted to live in Swindon or Bristol, or their lookalikes, then presumably that is exactly what we would do.

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