The way it works in Commons debates is you ‘put in’ to speak in advance, and if you’re chosen you appear on a ‘call list’ in numbered order. So when I was number 49 to speak in the debate on the new Coronavirus restrictions on Monday, and we were still on number 45, I thought I had at least 15 minutes to get my notes into some sort of order. But no - the three speakers ahead of me had withdrawn - and suddenly it was ‘Danny Kruger!’ from the Speaker’s chair and I was up. This explains my somewhat distracted and fumbling speech which you can watch here.
The argument I staggered through was this. The great tragedy of Covid-19 is that it works through the things we love and that give us meaning and prosperity: our relationships and gatherings, at home, at work and in the community. The Government has the awful task of balancing our need (personally and economically) for gathering, with the need to restrict transmission of the disease through social networks. I do not feel qualified to opine on the science behind the restrictions. But I do strongly agree with the principle of a localised approach, rather than the national lockdown that Labour are proposing.
In Wiltshire we are still mercifully near the bottom of the Covid charts. In my speech (and also in a meeting I attended with Matt Hancock this week) I argued for more power and responsibility to be handed to local councils, and for more trust to be placed in local people to manage risk in their neighbourhoods.
Also on Monday we had a vote on the Agriculture Bill, which will bring in the replacement to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy. The Lords had proposed an amendment which would effectively ban imported food from anywhere that doesn’t use exactly the same production methods as the UK. We are committed to our current food safety standards and we want to use our large and lucrative market to raise global standards of animal welfare and environmental standards too, I hope by means of ‘variable tariffs’ that penalise low production values. This, not a ban on imports from Africa and Europe as the Lords (and Labour) want, is the way ahead. I set out my thoughts more fully here.
Over recent weeks I have been working with other MPs, and with our local councils, to challenge the decision of the Ministry of Defence to issue, without warning, Notices to Quit to some hundreds of civilian families living in MOD homes around the country - around 100 of them in Wiltshire. I have had meetings with the Minister (who, to his credit, is working very hard to rectify the situation, which is annoyingly complicated) and with Wiltshire Council who have a cunning wheeze to help the families. My colleague Stephen Crabbe MP secured a debate in the Commons on the issue and I made a short speech which you can watch (together with the helpful response by the Minister) here. This time I was a bit better prepared.
You might be interested in the short article I wrote for The Times on Wednesday arguing for a renewed focus on two neglected but vital issues. In summary: ‘We need a national mission to fix our public health and adult education systems. Each has been the poor relation of its grander cousin, hospitals and schools respectively, but each is arguably more significant for the crisis we’re in. Think of public health as our defensive, and adult education as our offensive, capabilities. A fitter population is better protected against pandemics and all the other ills and evils of the modern lifestyle; and a skilled, educated workforce will build the businesses and bring forth the innovations that will make us prosper in the new world.’
Speaking of skills, I had a helpful call on Friday with the boss of Wiltshire College. We have no university in Wiltshire - and perhaps we should have one - but I am proud we have an outstanding College teaching practical and vocational skills as well as Higher Education to school leavers and mature students. After some tough times financially the College was back in the black before the pandemic struck and increasingly recognised for its excellent teaching. I am pressing the Government to lend (not give) the College the money it needs to balance the books. It is a vital institution for the future of the county.
I also spoke to the leadership of Wiltshire Council on Friday. The pandemic continues to put huge strain on the finances and operations of the council, though the leaders were pleased the government has just announced a further £1 billion for local government. But they are worried about delays in getting tests for care home residents and staff; about students returning from universities in high-risk areas to low-risk Wiltshire; and about jobs.
Unemployment in Wiltshire stands at 13,000, 2,600 of them aged under 24. This is nearly 200% higher than last October’s figures. We are facing a tough winter, especially for young people. The council is putting a lot of hope - as am I, as is the government - in the Chancellor’s Kickstart scheme which subsidises jobs for people aged 16-24. If you want to know more about this, or would like to help create opportunities for young people, please get in touch.
After my council call I popped into St John’s secondary school in Marlborough to meet the Headmaster and Head of Sixth Form to discuss the challenges Year 13 students face with their A-Levels at the end of this academic year, given the disruption they’ve had so far. I’m confident they will be fine, though more might need to be done to help. I’m looking into this.
After these bleak conversations I had a surprisingly cheery time wandering in and out of shops in Marlborough and Devizes. Not everywhere is booming - I felt very sorry for a high-end dress shop in Marlborough that depends on the party scene. But others, like the framers next door, or the flooring place in Devizes, are doing a roaring trade. Even the cafes and restaurants are bullish.
Most enthusiastic of all was Chris at Urban Rustics (‘Contemporary Country Interiors’) in Devizes. Chris is no Brexiteer and he and I have a quarterly argument on that nourishing topic. But despite the Government’s best efforts to ruin the country, Urban Rustics is doing brilliantly. Chris was in fact full of praise for Boris and Rishi’s support measures for businesses like his, but most of all he was almost tearful with appreciation of local people, who have shown consistent support for our independent local shops. ‘Devizes is the most amazing place’, he says, and so it is.
In 1894 (says Lorna Haycock’s history) Devizes had 36 grocers, 15 bakers, 15 confectioners, and seven drapers. It was the centre of a large economic hinterland which had been significantly enriched by the abolition of the local tollgate system 25 years earlier. On the last day of tolls in 1868 all the gates were pulled down and hauled around the town on a wagon decorated with flags, and then burned on a huge bonfire on Etchilhampton Hill, visible through the Pewsey Vale. As we approach the end of the EU trade negotiations I hope and trust the UK can, like Victorian Devizes, become a beacon of free trade and high standards, visible to the ends of the earth.