Happy Valentine’s Day. Lovers kept apart by the lockdown can see that the end is in sight, though sadly for them the Government appears to want to reunite children before adults. I strongly support the suggestion that schools should reopen first and very much hope we get good news on this soon.
I felt honoured to speak in Parliament last week in support of the quinquennial Armed Forces Bill, the traditional legislation by which the legal basis of the Army is periodically renewed. The 17th century looked askance at standing armies and it was a sign of England’s advanced and liberal politics that in 1688 we legislated that the Army exists only at the pleasure of Parliament. Countries (such as Mynamar, or China) where some version of a Parliament is tolerated at the pleasure of the Army, show us once again we should be proud of the British constitution.
The Armed Forces Bill also enforces on all local councils and public services an obligation to fulfil the Military Covenant - a pledge of non-discrimination against serving personnel and their families. When soldiers move around so much it is vital that schools, the NHS and other providers ensure they are not disadvantaged by virtue of their service. I was glad to have the opportunity in my speech to acknowledge the work of Wiltshire Council in successfully resettling thousands of soldiers and their families returning from Germany. Not everything about the rebasing has been perfect but overall the programme has gone well. My speech (with special mention of Councillor Chris Williams, the Wiltshire Armed Forces Champion) can be seen here.
I also spoke in Parliament last week about the procurement Green Paper. This esoteric topic concerns the £300 billion of your money that the Government spends each year on goods and services. I made the case that in addition to low prices, procurement policy should seek to boost local economies by buying from SMEs and social enterprises where possible. My question and the Minister’s positive reply are here.
The health service is in for another reorganisation. I think I approve of the outline Matt Hancock has given, which combines greater political accountability (via a consolidation of the multiple national bureaucracies we call the ‘NHS’ into a single body, and its subjection to ministerial oversight) with greater local autonomy over clinical and commissioning strategies. I said so here, expressing my hope that Mr Hancock does not have Bevanite instincts and wish to control everything from his office in Whitehall; he assured me he does not.
On Thursday I had the pleasure of joining a panel discussing the imminent arrival of thousands of people from Hong Kong to come and live in the UK. I am very proud of the Government’s commitment to our former colony in light of the lamentable record of the Chinese authorities in recent years. If we are to ensure that the Hong Kongers who come - who will be self-supporting, and are likely to be resilient and entrepreneurial - get the best possible start to their new life here, and go on to create the great economic and social value they could, we need to prepare properly for their arrival. I have been in discussion with Government about the support that will be available (which I think should be overwhelmingly provided by communities on a voluntary basis, rather than by the state) and will be meeting the relevant Minister to discuss the matter next week. This article sets out the opportunity succinctly.
I am holding a number of public meetings or roundtable discussions with constituents in the coming weeks. This Friday 19 February the Wiltshire Climate Summit, which I have organised with the support of the council and my fellow county MPs, will explore the options before us we approach the great global climate change jamboree, COP26, hosted by the UK in Glasgow in November. I am glad that Andrew Griffiths MP (the Prime Minister’s envoy to business for the net zero target), Minette Batters of the NFU and my predecessor as MP, and former President of COP26 Claire Perry O’Neill, will be joining the online summit. Do sign up to take part here.
Other meetings coming up will be around local broadband coverage, early years provision, and the Miliary Covenant and veterans. Do let me know if you would like to take part in any of these.
On 26 February I will be hosting an informal event for women in business in North Wiltshire and roundabout. Whether you’re an established business owner or have ideas about your own enterprise but aren’t sure where to start, the Make It Your Business Devizes session will offer guidance and peer support. Do sign up here.
Did you see the news that the bluestones at Stonehenge may have been second-hand? We know they come from Wales, but now it appears they were already been in use as a stone circle there before being shipped to Wiltshire. This adds another layer to the eternal question about Stonehenge: why on earth did they do that?
As my prehistory guru Tim Daw ponders, is Stonehenge in fact plunder, a trophy of conquest? In which case are the modern druids worshipping at a shrine to neolithic imperialism? Or was it a case of ancient Welsh migrants bringing their bluestones with them when they came to settle on our windy plain? Who knows? And in a sense, who cares? The main stones of Stonehenge, the big ‘uns in the outer circle, come from closer by - the West Woods at Lockeridge, near Marlborough. I don’t think they were upright there, but dug from the ground and dragged 25 miles south to stand in enigmatic majesty facing the midsummer sunrise.