Like everywhere in the country we have long queues for petrol in Wiltshire, and some eye-watering prices. I’m confident the supplies will get through, and demand will tail off once enough people have filled up earlier than they would have if there wasn’t a panic on. But we should not underestimate this crisis or what it means for the way we manage essential goods.
The most sophisticated systems are the most prone to breakdown. Our supply chains are now so clever - so efficient, so ‘just in time’ - that an unusual event causes a major upset. We badly need to use the crisis in haulage and energy to build more resilient systems, with more reliance on domestic production and distribution.
I made this point in the ‘cost of living’ debate called by the Opposition on Wednesday. Labour are right to focus on this, as inflation is creeping in and people are facing significant increases in their bills. The immediate cause is the surge in demand for raw materials and energy following the end of the global lockdown. But the more profound explanation is the distortions caused by a concentration of the markets, not just in energy but in other utilities, in food retail and house building. These essential goods need more plural markets, with genuine competition. Most of all we need cheaper housing: housing costs have doubled as a proportion of family spending in the last 50 years (while the proportion spent on food has halved). My speech is here.
Almost the last appointment of the government reshuffle last week was to put me in as the most junior bag-carrier (Parliamentary Private Secretary) in the new Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (the infelicitous DLUHC). I’m delighted to have a perch in this vital part of government, which is led by Michael Gove as Secretary of State, as it is responsible for a lot of the policy areas I am most interested in.
The job of a PPS is to support the ministers in Parliament, and I had my first task on Wednesday when our minister Kemi Badenoch MP had to take the Elections Bill through Committee (the line-by-line scrutiny of Bills). I basically sat behind her and did nothing (PPS’s don’t speak in debates on their department’s business) but it was interesting to watch the dingdong between the two sides.
Also in Parliament this week I congratulated Wiltshire schools for successfully getting their students back into the classroom this term, and asked the minister to encourage all 12-15 year old children and parents to get all the information they need to make an informed choice about vaccination. See here.
And I spoke in the debate on baby loss, which included some very emotional speeches from other members, and from me a speech about the scandal of the 18 year old girl remanded in custody in 2019, who gave birth alone in her prison cell one night to a baby who was found dead in the morning. My speech is here.
Last Friday night a huge fire broke out at Woodborough Primary School. The cause is presumed to be repair works that were going on. Fortunately no-one was hurt, but two classrooms are out of action and will need rebuilding. Today, after a week of remote learning (which everyone was already wearily used to), all the children will return. I visited this weekend to meet the head and chair of governors, and clap the children running round the village as part of a long-arranged fundraiser. It was a lovely scene, despite the blackened shell of part of the buildings. My thanks and congratulations to the whole school community for the way they are rallying after this disaster.
The Devizes Food and Drink Festival has returned, and this weekend an eccentric smorgasbord of pop-up stalls, emitting delicious smells and offering ingenious ales and gins, filled the Market Place. In the Corn Exchange, along with some very professional cookery demonstrations, was the competition for the best Devizes Pie.
This interesting artefact, I find, has its origins in the earliest days of the town - the recipe, in Old English, was discovered behind the Town Charter (written in 1141) when it was taken down for cleaning in the 1960s. It was a staple English dish, appearing in recipe books throughout the 19th century. It sounds revolting to our fastidious modern tastes, being composed largely of offal (‘cold calf’s head, with some of the brains, pickled tongue, sweetbreads…’). But a dozen valiant piemakers had a go, including one with a bas-relief of Devizes Castle (the original from 1120, I think, not our Victorian version) on the crust. Sadly, I couldn’t stay long enough to sample them, but they looked delicious. My congratulations to Jenny Groom and everyone involved in the Festival. Do go along - it’s on till next Saturday. Info here.