The crocuses are out and we’ve had some days of gorgeous spring weather, but we know how March and April are, and we’re not through the worst of it yet. The same goes for the economy. There are some welcome signs that the recession - if we even have one - won’t be as bad as feared. But as I said to the Governor of the Bank of England when he came to give evidence to the Treasury Select Committee, which I’m a member of, even if the economy overall manages to avoid a contraction a significant portion of the population is deep in recession as it is.
Wage growth in many sectors lags inflation by 10%. Rising interest rates are punishing everyone with a mortgage. The mismatch between income and outgoings is cruelly large. In my view we simply have to boost growth and incomes through targeted tax reductions, along with meaningful reforms to the public services to cut costs and improve outcomes.
All these abstractions come to earth for everyone in different ways. I spent an hour last week with Tessa and Eddie Berisha who own the Post Office in Aldbourne, which is also the village shop, a deli and a (very successful, but very small) cafe. The cost of electricity is absolutely crippling to a business like this, not to mention the difficulty of finding staff and competing with the supermarkets. Policy can and must help on all these fronts - tackling high energy costs, getting people back into the workforce, regulating the supermarkets to protect local competition - but we also need to play our part. If everyone in Aldbourne bought their eggs and milk from the Post Office, this vital local service would have a much better chance of survival - and local farmers would benefit too. See what they offer here.
One example of a community supporting its local outlets is the Ogbournes, where the Silks on the Downs pub was saved from closure by the efforts of hundreds of locals, led by Stuart Williamson and Simon Basford (pictured with me above last week), who bought the place (with a generous bit of help from the government) and did it up. It’s a wonderful pub and needs your patronage, if you’re passing up or down the A346 north of Marlborough.
In Parliament I have been speaking on the need for supply side reforms to help firms retain workers, by extending rights for flexible working for people with caring responsibilities (the lack of which is a big barrier to take or stick with a job). I also spoke in support of a Bill which will stop employers from imposing ‘exclusivity contracts’ on their workers without the guarantee of work; we need fairer treatment of people than that.
I raised concerns about a new law which seeks to protect people from harassment at work - a major problem, particularly for women, but I sought assurances that employers will not be responsible for policing conversations by their customers. In my speech I regretted the drift towards what I called ‘declaratory law’ that simply outlaws something we disapprove of, without proper attention to the way it will be implemented.
Free speech matters. The Government is commendably seeking to protect the liberty of students and lecturers against the aggressive ‘cancel culture’ which is taking over university campuses. I spoke in support of this Bill here.
I am continuing my efforts to reduce heavy goods traffic on the A338/A346 between Amesbury and Swindon, through Marlborough and a lot of villages which are simply not able to accommodate the volume of lorries. I raised the issue in Parliament (see here) and also met with the Roads Minister to discuss the Dorset Coast connectivity study which is seeking improved access from the south coast to the M4 - and I hope will lead to less pressure on our road (post here).
I’ve been on TV and radio a fair bit this week arguing with my mother about assisted suicide - she’s very pro, I’m very anti, and we made a documentary about it, travelling round North America looking at places where it’s happening. I think the film (which you can watch here) is fair and balanced, and I hope it shows you can disagree on an important moral and practical questions without falling out.
I’ve been reading the war diaries of Field Marshall Lord Alanbrooke, who commanded the Home Defence in 1940-1 when Hitler was on the point of invading Britain. He was in Wiltshire a lot. For instance, on 3 December 1940, ‘I went to see the Armoured Division advancing on Marlborough… Then hunted for the 4th Div, but without success as they were stuck in the mud on Larkhill ranges! Finally attended Monty’s conference in Burbage and spent the night in the Forest Hotel, Savernake.’ The Kennet and Avon canal was a key defensive line, which explains all the pillboxes round here. I didn’t know that Brooke (as he then was) was actually opposed to static defences, and imagined a more ‘offensive defensive’ strategy with mobile troops harassing the invaders. I imagine he would be proud of Wiltshire now, where you can hear the guns going off most days as we help Ukrainian troops train for their great work of resistance and liberation.