This week’s remembrance of the Great War in Europe, 1914-18, is a time to reflect on the sacrifice of many. We respect and admire what hundreds of thousands of young men did for our country. We are in awe of their loyalty, bravery and eventual victory.
It is also time to ask how can we learn from the brutality and slaughter than characterised relations between nations one hundred years ago? How can we make sure we avoid the mistakes made by the politicians and Generals in the rush to arms in the early twentieth century? And how can we help put right or ease tensions over the borders they drew on maps in 1919 at the peace which in some cases still cause heartache and conflict today?
I have learned two things above all about the use of force and the conduct of international relations from reading the history of the twentieth century and from witnessing the results of military interventions in our own era. The first is in the end you need to sit down and talk and draw up a basis for future peace. Simply winning a war does automatically lead to stability and success. The Second World War formed in part from the resentments of Germany at the peace imposed upon it twenty years earlier. Diplomacy and politics, often despised arts, are essential to avoiding future wars and seeking the background for nation to live in peace besides nation.
The second is a nation needs to be realistic about where it has sufficient force to intervene decisively to reach a quick and convincing military outcome. The UK’s more recent interventions to restore home rule in the Falklands, and with the USA and our allies to evict the invader from Kuwait were examples where we had the force and were able to secure the desired outcome with limited loss of life to a tight timetable. Our long war in Afghanistan entailed much more hardship with a less certain result.
In 1914 the UK felt it had to honour its pledge to protect Belgium. The truth was we did not have a large and well equipped army to be able to fulfil our promise. It should make us wary of offering guarantees today that might prove difficult to match with our limited armed services available. In both 1914 and 1939 the UK went to war long before we had the army to take on those we opposed. In 1914 it meant years of trench warfare with massive loss of life as the UK and France built the war winning armies from recruiting, training and equipping more thoroughly for the new conditions of warfare. The arrival of US troops also helped. In 1939 it meant the near complete defeat of our army on the continent in 1940, redeemed in part only by a skilful and desperate retreat across the Channel with what remained of our shattered forces.
Today the diplomatic challenges of helping create a peace in the Middle East that can meet the realistic expectations of Arabs and Jews, and can allow different Muslim groups to live alongside one another are huge. So too is the need to settle the wider Europe without isolating Russia dangerously and encouraging the very behaviour we wish to condemn and avoid to the east of our continent. I think the UK has fought too many wars. I am not a pacifist, and accept that some wars are necessary and morally right. Such wars can and should be fought, but only when we know we have the moral and military strength to do so or when immediate threats to our islands requires action.
Last week we heard the good news that employment in the UK has reached record levels as a proportion of the possible workforce. There are now 30.6 million people in work. Since the 2010 election 1.8 million extra jobs have been created and unemployment has come down to 6.5%.
In Wokingham the news is even better. In the constituency unemployment is now at just 0.8% with 441 people looking for a job. There are 316 fewer claimants of unemployment benefit than a year ago.
Getting people back to work was always the most important task facing the incoming government in 2010. The aim is to make work pay, so individuals and families are better off when they move into employment. It also means we need to spend less on unemployment benefits, helping cut the state deficit and moving nearer to the time when we can have overall cuts in taxation.
In the meantime the government has been well aware of low pay rises and of low pay for some of the jobs on offer. That is why it has taken many people out of income tax altogether where they are on lower incomes, so they keep more of what they do earn. It is also the case that the best way to a better paid job is often to take a not so well paid job and work your way up. Educational reform, more training courses and more apprenticeships are also important parts of the policy to help people into jobs for the first time, and in to more responsible and more skilled better paid jobs.
There is more to be done to spread the prosperity and success more fully around the country. I am glad unemployment is now so low in Wokingham. We too can do more to ensure good educational and training opportunities for all, as we work away to raise pay and living standards from this better base.
What is the best way to raise your living standards? It is usually to work some overtime or get a promotion so you are paid more. What is the best way to get a better job? It is usually to start off in whatever job you can get and work your way up. It may involve taking a graining course, or getting some experience so your employer will trust you to take on a better paid job, or moving on to a new opening.
The recent good news is that there are many more jobs around giving people more opportunity to get started, and to move up the employment ladder. Since the 2010 election the UK has created an additional 1.8 million jobs. Employment is at record levels. Unemployment has come down by 372,000 since the last General Election. In the Wokingham constituency there are 316 fewer people out of work than a year ago. Unemployment is down to 0.8%.
Labour is right to criticise low pay and constrained living standards in some jobs. The Coalition government has recognised this problem and has raised the Minimum Wage. It has also, more importantly, taken many people out of tax altogether where they are on low pay, so they keep more of what they earn.
More needs to be done to assist greater prosperity and to spread the gr9wth of the economy out from the London area. It is good news that there are now many jobs available in our area, and the chance to find better paid work to raise living standards.
Last Sunday I attended the Berkshire service of commemoration for the start of the Great War in 1914.
It was a time for sombre reflection. A whole generation of young men were put at grave risk of death, and lived in atrocious conditions in the trenches, as the combined powers of the West and Russia sought to defeat the militarism of Germany and her allies. It led many to say this must be the war to end all wars. Instead a badly drafted Peace Treaty and political convulsions in Germany led to another world war 21 years later.
The good news we can celebrate is there has been no major European or world war since 1945. The construction of NATO, the commitment of the USA to preserving the peace and protecting the borders of post 1945 Europe, and the move of the major western countries to democratic government have succeeded in creating a new peace loving climate in much of Europe that is our precious inheritance. Doubtless all those who lost their lives in the brutal slaughter of 1914-18 would be pleased that belatedly Europe has come to its senses and sees the futility and danger of fighting over borders and government control of territory.
Today we see too many civil wars in the Middle East. We see continuing instability about borders and governing areas in the east of our own continent. The EU has been needlessly provocative to Russia, and Russia has replied with the annexation of the Crimea. We need to make sure wiser counsels prevail. The EU should not be seen as a threatening force by its neighbours, and the neighbours need to respect the rule of law and the wish for peace by most European peoples.
I thank all those who read, sang and spoke at the service. The words and hymns chosen were deeply moving. We both commemorated the dead, and gave thanks that we live in an age which has not sent European young men to their death in wars of industrial proportions.
Sometimes the smaller things in life can make a difference. In that spirit the government last week announced more money for Councils to mend potholes and smooth the roads. Along with other MPs I have been asking for more cash to sort out the damage done by the winter rains and floods. I have noticed in recent days white markings appearing alongside broken pieces of carriageway. They seem to presage repairs, rather than marking place kicks for a far away football competition. Wokingham is getting £782,000 more this year, with £332,000 of that added in the latest government press release.
The Council is making progress with the Rose Street end of the Town Centre redevelopment, whilst the new Council executive get ready to revise the proposals for Elms Field in the light of the many replies to the consultation and in the knowledge that Sainsburys do not want a foodstore there. I am also pressing the Environment Agency to help the Council come up with more schemes to flood proof our local area against the next wet winter. We should be able to keep the two main A roads into Reading open more often if work is done on the A327 and on the Loddon Bridge roundabout.
In Parliament thought is already turning to the May 2015 General Election, now the local and European elections are out of the way. I have been busy working on proposals for the next Conservative Manifesto. Mr Miliband last week had a launch of new ideas for Labour. We are going to have another attempt at legislating for a referendum on our membership of the EU by 2017, despite the continuing opposition of the Liberal Democrats. Rumour has it that some of them are having second thoughts and asking why they want to stand against the voters having a say on this most central of issues.
I have been one of the voices urging the government to stay out of military intervention in Iraq. It is worrying to watch another civil war breaking out in the Middle East. This time the west is more inclined to support the government against its opposition, whereas in Syria they wanted to support the opposition to the government. The death and destruction both sides are doing in both countries is sad to watch. My fear is our military engagement might cost more lives and add greater complexity to an already bitter situation. The Syrian opposition is not all good, and the government of Iraq has failed to win over the minority communities to its mandate. The west must tread carefully, and respond to cries for humanitarian assistance. Our diplomacy and advice might help. Killing more locals will not.
In the Queen’s speech debate I spoke for England.
Last Wednesday amidst much pageantry and splendour the Queen opened the last session of this Parliament. In accordance with tradition she read a speech written for her by the government telling us what new laws Ministers wish Parliament to approve over the next year.
The main task in the year ahead is to take more actions to promote economic recovery. This will include measures to help the construction of more homes to meet the rising demand. The government wishes to help business find and produce more domestic energy, to help control prices. There will be a new law to tackle modern slavery and ways to enforce the payment of the minimum wage better to stop exploitation of workers. There will be a new £2000 a year childcare voucher for working parents. There will be simplifications to make it easier to set up a business and hire your first employee. Much of what needs doing does not need new laws. More jobs will come from growth, as the benefits of past economic action comes through in the form of business expansion and rising incomes.
So why then did I speak for England? Because overhanging this session of Parliament is the big question of the future of the United Kingdom. We await the Scottish decision on whether they wish to stay in the United Kingdom or not. Most UK voters want the Scots to stay. It looks likely they will vote to stay in. If they do so all three main political parties in Parliament want to offer them more devolved powers for their government in Edinburgh. This inevitably raises the question of England.
If Scotland is to have more powers to choose and raise her own taxes so should England. I do not think the tolerant English will accept more lop sided devolution. At the moment Scottish MPs can debate and vote on English health, education and criminal justice matters which they cannot settle for Scotland. We English MPs have no such rights over Scottish health or education. That causes stresses over issues like university fees and care for the elderly where the Scottish treatment is more generous to taxpayers than in England. If we were to have Scottish MPs voting taxes on England which did not apply to Scotland the sense of unfairness would get much larger.
That is why I spoke for England. I would like Scotland to stay within the UK. I think they will. I then want a fair settlement for England when Parliament turns to just how much more power Scottish politicians will have over their own affairs. My speech was broadly welcomed by colleagues present, including by the Scottish nationalists. I still have to persuade the government.
The local and EU elections gave me the opportunity to visit more doorsteps and talk to more people in their homes. Parliament has taken a break between sessions to allow MPs more time in their constituencies.
The doorstep conversations were very varied, with numerous local issues that matter to people that are the task of the new Council to sort out. There was little change in the composition of the Council, with the addition of one new Labour member and the gain of one seat in Woodley by the Conservatives from the Liberal Democrats. I congratulate all those who won on May 22nd and wish them well in dealing with a wide range of issues in planning, transport, education and social services. They need to take up the plans for Wokingham Town centre and respond to changed circumstances and local views. They need to develop their ideas to combat future flooding, and to ease congestion on our roads. I also thank all who fought and lost. They worked hard to give us all a choice and are a necessary part of our democracy.
The EU election brought to the fore the issue of whether we should be in the EU at all, and if we wish to remain in it, how should we wish to change it to meet the UK’s needs? At one end of the spectrum of debate the Liberal democrats campaigned for staying in on current terms, a view which proved to be unpopular. At the other end of the spectrum UKIP campaigned for immediate exit, a view which attracted a lot of support. The Conservatives set out the offer to the electors which we will repeat in the 2015 General election. We think the current relationship does not work in the UK’s interest, but think we should negotiate with the rest of the EU first before deciding whether it is best to leave or whether there is a new relationship that makes sense for the UK. Labour largely accepts the current relationship, like the Liberal Democracts, and is not in favour of withdrawal. However, in the light of the EU election results they seem now to be saying they too think some features of our current relationship need to change.
There are two main reasons why I want to see a major change in our relationship. The first is the EU has been given far too much power under the Treaties of Nice, Amsterdam and Lisbon which Conservatives opposed at the time. The second is the Euro area is gathering power to the centre and needs to form a common government over many things. As a non Euro member we have no wish to be dragged into this centralised system which would stop us having our own policies for prosperity and economic advance. I want to trade with the rest of the EU and be friends with them. We need agreements with them over various matters ranging from flight paths and airport access through ferry links to pipelines and power connections. That does not mean we have to be governed by the EU, or let them decide our immigration policy, our criminal justice system or our energy policy.
Much of the debate for the EU elections was about these fundamental matters which do still get settled at Westminster. Only the Westminster Parliament can order a referendum on our future on the EU. Only our national Parliament can vote to take us out of the EU, if that is the wish of UK voters. The EU elections sent messages. The 2015 General Election will make the decisions on whether we want to negotiate a new deal, and whether we want an In/Out referendum or not. So far only the Conservatives are offering an IN/Out referendum. Let’s see how others respond to the mood of the country as expressed on May 22nd.
As work nears completion on the new road link from the Station to the Reading Road in Wokingham, so we should expect work to begin this year on major improvements to the Coppid Beech roundabout to improve the capacity of that busy junction. The Council will receive a government grant to pay for much of the work from the Local Pinch Point Fund, just as it received financial help with the Station link. It is good to see the Council pressing on with practical schemes which should make it easier for people to get to work, to take children to school , and to assist local business.
I was also pleased to read this week that recorded crime is now down by 28% compared to June 2010 when the Coalition government took over. I would like to thank all who have played an active part in achieving this. It takes work by the police, witnesses and sometimes from the families of those might otherwise commit crimes.
The UK seems to be living through a period of rapid growth in jobs. Here in Wokingham unemployment is down to 1%, and there are jobs available for those who need one. The best way to boost a family’s living standards is to get a job, and the best way to a better paid job is to take a junior or not very well paid role and work your way up. Many people in Wokingham agree and are showing that it is possible to get out there and find a job.
The Opposition in Parliament point to a cost of living crisis. They are right in saying that between 2008 and now average living standards have gone down. The biggest fall occurred during the Great Recession of 2008-9. The government is taking action to curb energy bills where it can, by cutting levies and taxes and reducing heavily subsidised and expensive power projects. Recently there has been welcome relief at the petrol pumps with some falls in price. There are signs that at last average pay is edging ahead of price rises. We all want to see more progress for people to be better off. That means keeping taxes down, helping keep prices down where government has a role, and above all creating the conditions where there can be more and better paid jobs. Things seem to be moving in the right direction for now, but there is a long way to go to restore fully the position before the crash of 2008.
I was pleased the Borough Council withdrew the original plans for Wokingham Town Centre and Elms Field. They consulted widely, and there were worries expressed about the amount of development and the extent of change planned for Elms Field in particular. They need to alter them in the light of public views, which is what they are now doing.
There is plenty of support for Town Centre redevelopment, and agreement to building on brownfield sites, which includes the site next to Elms field created by knocking down the old offices. The Lib Dems who have been critics of the Council scheme themselves want to see new investment in the Town Centre, accept building on land that has been developed before, and want to make profit on property improvements for the taxpayer, just as the Conservative group wish to do. There is perhaps more common ground than the parties admit in the run up to a Council election.
The Lib Dems want to commit to an investment of £30 million , where the Conservative have proposed a substantially higher sum. They fear too much Council debt. I think the answer to this disagreement will come from the private sector, who will decide how much property they want to buy or rent and how large a redevelopment they will help finance. There is no need to build up large debts as the Lib Dems fear. The Lib Dems seem to want to limit the scale of the investment to keep more public sector control , whereas the Conservatives are happier to welcome in more private sector money and accept the Council cannot own all of it.
Any development of the differing sites in Wokingham will be phased. The Council can complete one area, sell all or part to private sector investors on long leases or freehold and then move on to the redevelopment of the next part. One of the big possible investments is in a food store to the east of Elms Field. This should only go ahead if a large food chain wishes to sign a contract to use it. If it does the finance can easily be raised from the private sector. If it does not want to, there is no point in building a large food store. We should know soon whether this is wanted.
Both parties agree with some extra housing adjacent to Elms Field, though the numbers, design and scale are still under discussion.
I think we will end up with a better plan thanks to public responses to the consultation, and through the usual process of local political disagreements over the details. It is important that the final plan is ambitious enough to provide an expanding Wokingham with the shops and other central facilities we are going to need for the future.
Following hard on the heels of a new Wokingham Station, the Highways Agency visited us last week to start their consultation on an improved M4. I went along to talk to them. I wanted to stress the need to take more action to cut down the motorway noise which afflicts people living in Winnersh, Earley and the other settlements near to the motorway.
The government’s scheme is to convert the current hard shoulder from Junction 3 to Junction 12 into an additional traffic lane. Pull in areas will be created along the length of the motorway to allow any vehicle in distress to pull off the highway. If a car cannot even make it to the next pull in this will be picked up by the motorway controllers and that lane will be closed with appropriate warnings and speed restrictions. This system is currently operating successfully elsewhere on motorways that have already been converted to this “smart motorway” model.
The new motorway will have the facility for lower speed limits to be introduced if this would help the smooth running of traffic on a very congested road, or if there is a hazard. There will have to be new bridges along the length of the expanded motorway to cope with the extra lane.
I have made two proposals to the Highways Agency to help with the noise problem. The first is that when they resurface the road they should use a noise reducing compound. The second is they should install more barriers near to housing to baffle the sound. The Agency promised to investigate this need and report on it as part of their response to consultation.
As I said I thought this was widely wanted, it would be a good idea if more people would make this point during the consultation or would write in to reinforce it. The address of the Agency is The Highways Agency, The Cube, 199 Wharfside Streeet, Birmingham B1 1RN. The email for this consultation is M4J3to12SmartMotorways@highways.gsi.gov.uk.
I also urged them to minimise inconvenience to existing road users when doing the replacement bridges. They said they would investigate building a new bridge alongside the old one, so it can continue in use. They also said they would consider limiting off peak motorway closures to drop new bridges in by seeking to do more than one at a time.