The Government has invested very considerably in defence in this Parliament. All three of the Prime Ministers we’ve had since 2019 have increased spending on the Armed Forces and we continue to lead NATO in our commitment as a percentage of GDP. And yet the headcount of the Army is shrinking. Ministers correctly argue that a soldier without the necessary kit, the capabilities of aggression and protection - which these days include a lot of cyber as well as armour - is no use to anyone. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable to me that the UK is sufficiently well served by an Army of less than 73,000 men and women in uniform.
I made this point to the Defence Secretary Ben Wallace in the Commons and I detect in his answer a desire to reverse the cuts once finances allow. See our exchange here. In another debate - on Army pensions and support for forces’ families - I managed to list all (I think) of the regiments stationed in the constituency; apologies if I missed yours out (check here).
Late last month I reluctantly voted against the Windsor Framework, the PM’s deal with the EU to remove some of the obstacles to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I was in a tiny minority who did so, because all the opposition parties supported the deal. I set out the reasons for my vote here.
I am very supportive of what the PM and Home Secretary are trying to do to ‘stop the boats’. The Illegal Migration Bill, currently going through the Commons, will mandate the removal of people who arrive in the UK illegally, either back to their own country or to a safe third country like Rwanda. This blanket rule is necessary to disrupt the people smuggling business, and the necessary precondition for what we also need - a clearer safe and legal route for people genuinely in immediate need of refuge.
The principal barrier to the policy is the European Convention on Human Rights, or more specifically interpretations of the Convention by courts here and in Strasbourg. The Bill will go a long way to blocking the efforts of lawyers to use the ECHR to frustrate the removals policy, but I think it needs to go further. Some colleagues and I tabled some amendments and we are currently discussing with Government whether our concerns can be met ahead of the Bill’s final stages in 10 days’ time. I set out my reasons in a speech you can watch here.
On a related subject, I also asked the Prime Minister whether he agreed we need to invest in the skills of our own young people rather than importing cheap labour from abroad. The opposition didn’t like it, but the PM agreed, I’m glad to say. Watch here.
I have a long piece in this week’s New Statesman setting out what I think my Party needs to do to reassemble the coalition of voters - north and south, urban and rural, rich and poor - which swept us to power under Boris Johnson’s leadership in 2019. You can read it here, though you’ll need to pay for it I’m afraid.
You may know I’ve been fighting for the long-hoped-for Devizes train station. We have had good and bad news on this, with the study funded by Government reporting this month. The bad news is that the business case for the investment in a new station - and the necessary new rolling stock and changes to the timetable - does not stand up on its own. The good news is that a new station for Devizes would work as part of a bigger, Wiltshire-wide rail transport plan, with investment in the services for Pewsey and Bedwyn as well as further west. This grander vision makes sense, and will be of benefit for more people; but we will have to wait a few more years for it. I will continue to make the case in Parliament and with ministers directly that Wiltshire urgently needs investment in public transport, from buses to trains; and of course in our road network. Potholes remain one of the biggest bugbears locally.
Pewsey is well served in one key respect, which you may not have known, but will now never forget. The public toilets there never close. This is a crucial piece of intelligence for local emergency workers and night-time delivery drivers. I learned it on a visit to meet David McGarry, Chair of the Parish Council, Maralyn Hunt, the councillor responsible for planning, and the Parish Clerk Alison Kent. We had a walk about to see where new housing is going - notably the old police station, now acquired by a Community Land Trust to turn into flats - and where the parish council is trying to resist development not approved in the local neighbourhood plan. They explained that the toilets are open because, in an important act of local devolution, they were handed over by Wiltshire Council to Pewsey Parish Council. I strongly support these asset transfers, for I believe the more that local people and their representatives are responsible for local services the better the services will be, and the more contented the public.