In the midst of a Global Spring

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We are all familiar with the concept of the Arab Spring. The time when hope ignited peoples across the Middle East to overthrow established autocracies and political elites. I am now of the opinion that we are seeing something much more widespread. A Global Spring if you like. You can see it in the American Presidential race, in Brexit and you can follow the same thread that sees a third of French people now willing to vote for a racist party. It is making itself felt in elections in Italy, Spain, and Germany and in most established democracies in the world.

As a member of an established centre ground political party of Government I need to understand what is going on here, or perhaps I will be swept away on a similar tide in the years ahead. Firstly, there is a good side to it. A lack of deference and a move away from tribal support for particular parties is a sign of a more mature and challenging democracy. Challenge for those in positions of power is healthy and if done within the norms of electoral means, holds leaders to account as never before.

But there is a darker side which we need to counter. It comes mainly from the politics of the extremes. We have seen a new and profoundly worrying expression of rage in the US election. The so-called alt-right found in Donald Trump a hook for a style of campaigning that uses vitriol as a weapon. They like to shock with their claims about their opponents. They have weaponised issues like the migrant crisis using social media in pitiless attacks on the most vulnerable people in the world.

It is a phenomenon that exists on this side of the Atlantic too and is not just restricted to the right. We have seen the extraordinary rise of anti-Semitism on the left in British politics. It seems to have infected the Labour Party in a way that just cannot be eradicated.

The factor that allows the new vitriol to thrive is anger. In West Berkshire politics is a pretty civilised business. Passions do get aroused but most of the time we tolerate our opponents. That all changed earlier in the summer with the referendum debate. As a remainer I was subjected to a fair amount of bile. In a public meeting in Newbury a man stood up and pointing a shaking finger at me shouted that I would not be welcome at the war memorial on Remembrance Sunday because of my traitorous views on Britain’s membership of the EU (I will be there, with my fellow veterans!). This climate of anger coupled with the occasional death threat, does not change my view of public life and has not made me change how I do my job. But it has made me begin to worry about how we attract people to stand for office in the future.

Last week the High Court found that the Government was not acting within the law in regards to the triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. This is the measure whereby a country gives the EU a two year notice of its intention to quit. The law lords were doing what law lords should do: they heard a case and interpreted the law. The response in some newspapers and from some people was extraordinary. There were personal attacks on these judges that were utterly unacceptable in a society that has existed for years on the principle of a free and independent judiciary. The person who brought the case has been threatened with gang rape and murder.

At one end of the spectrum we have someone getting a bit over-excited in a public meeting in Newbury and at the other we have the vilest and most sinister threats to an individual and utterly wrongful attacks on the independence of our judges. The solutions are not easy. Firstly we all need to calm down a bit. This means leadership from the top. Newspapers, commentators and, yes, leading politicians need to reject vitriol as a way to respond to events. It is perfectly possible to disagree with the judges but to defend to the death their right to interpret the law as they see it. Just so as there is no misinterpretation here, the Lord Chancellor, Liz Truss, while expressing her disappointment at the verdict should have condemned newspapers for their coverage of the case.

If I get a ranting email full of bile and fury I sometimes telephone the sender a day or two later. This often results in a civilised chat and a rather embarrassed semi-apology for the language used. It won’t work with all cases and if we are to see the extension of the use of anger as a tool of legitimate political action we need to address its root cause. An establishment view is to roll the eyes and shake the head. This is shorthand for saying to the public, “Look, you are living longer and have a better quality of life of any generation that has ever lived, so damn well count your blessings and cheer up”. Not a universally successful response.

The alternative is to engage, to explain and to inform. This needs to be done as never before. Politics is complicated; issues are rarely binary and almost nothing or no one is totally right or wrong. Social media and other platforms allow engagement on an unprecedented level and we need to use them. We also need to be more retro. The public meeting went out of fashion in recent decades. I sense it is coming back into vogue. A couple of years ago I held a meeting in Newbury Town Hall to hear people’s views on Gaza. So many came that we had to turn some away. The same will happen when I hold a public meeting to hear people’s views on how they would like to see Brexit happen.

So understanding the fast-shifting politics of the Global Spring is one thing. Responding to it is another. Doing nothing and hoping it will all go away is not an option.

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An end to homelessness

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By the time a homeless person appears in my surgery or at the reception desk at my local authority, this terrible moment of crisis invariably reflects many overlapping layers of human misery. There might have been a bereavement, an illness, injury or relationship breakdown, a tenancy might have come to an end either naturally or through an inability to pay the rent, they might be care leavers or suffering from mental health issues. But whatever the cause – or causes - homelessness remains one of the most shaming features of modern society. How can the fifth-largest economy in the world still be unable to house its citizens?

This was the point of Bob Blackman’s Private Members Bill which was debated in the House of Commons last week and why so many MPs of all parties turned up to vote unanimously in its favour. As he said, this will not be a ‘magic bullet’ that will clear the streets of homeless people overnight but what it will do is introduce a long-term cultural change which, over time, will bring about a different way of working among local authorities that will stop people from getting into the terrible position of being homeless in the first place.

In this area we are fortunate to have fantastic organisations such as Loose Ends and Two Saints which offer support and shelter to those on the streets. I am also involved with the Centre for Social Justice which is looking at the success of homelessness projects in the US and Finland to see how that could translate back here. Another excellent provision is the Nightstop UK service provided by the charity De Paul which gives free, safe, emergency accommodation for single young people in carefully vetted volunteers’ homes.

As the Minister said in the debate, the number of homeless has fallen by a commendable 58% from its peak in 2003-4. However, it is still a reality for too many. As this Bill now goes through to committee stage, we need to keep our focus on the fact that one person without a home is one too many.

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Pharmacies for the future

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I was in the Commons last week to hear the Minister make a statement on the future of community pharmacy. MPs like myself who represent a mix of rural and urban communities could see why reform of this vital service has become necessary. Community pharmacy does what it says on the tin and does it very well but the current funding system is out of date and inefficient. It does not always encourage quality over quantity, not does it promote the integration with the rest of the NHS that we – the patients as well as many pharmacists themselves - would like to see.

The first thing to note is that although overall funding is being reduced (by 4% in 2016/17 and a further 3.4% in 2017/18), this does not, repeat not, represent a cut in the NHS budget; every penny saved will be reallocated elsewhere within the NHS.

But the structure of pharmacy funding will change. The current fixed payment of £25,000 a year regardless of size, quality or local demand, will be phased out and payments for quality will be introduced. This means that for the first time we will be paying pharmacies for the quality of service that they are providing, not just the volume of prescriptions they dispense. Alongside this, the aim is to integrate pharmacies more fully into the frontline of patient care, ensuring for example that patients who need urgent repeat prescription medicines will be referred directly to community pharmacies rather than GP out-of-hours services, as well as ensuring that all pharmacies will be able to provide minor ailments services, again taking the pressure off other parts of the NHS.

Many pharmacies in urban areas are within walking distance of at least one other pharmacy. But this does not apply in our rural villages where people may be dependent on one high-street outlet. The vital service that these provide has been recognised and an additional fund put in place to protect them and ensure continued access for patients in these communities.

In the Minister’s words, the future for community pharmacy is bright. These reforms will hopefully see it continuing to do what it says on the tin for the foreseeable future.

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Achieving a smart Brexit

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The one thing an MP gets in plentiful amount is people’s opinions. Brexit has resulted in a splurge of guidance for me on how the Government should manage the coming weeks, months and years in response to the referendum in June. The local Liberal Democrats seem to want me to ignore the result altogether and have another referendum. This doesn’t seem very liberal or democratic. Others say that I should only support a solution that sees Britain cut loose from the single market. Anything less, they say, is a “betrayal” of what the country voted for. They appear to link having access to the single market as somehow watering down an exit from the EU. Presumably such people also think British companies having to apply US standards for goods they want to export to the US is somehow selling our sovereignty down the river. Many call for some sort of tariff-free arrangement, or “soft Brexit”. Me? I want a smart Brexit. One that disadvantages my constituents the least while respecting the decision taken by the electorate in a popular vote. And yes folks, that won’t be easy.

Xtrac is an award-winning engineering company in Thatcham that employs around 400 people and exports 70% of what it makes to countries in the EU. It needs Britain to be part of a customs union and preferably a tariff-free trading union. Several thousand of my constituents work in financial services. They need Britain to continue to enjoy the passporting rules that allow financial services companies to operate across borders without separate authorisations. I could go on to give many examples of people I represent who are concerned at how the forthcoming negotiations will proceed. Any job lost because we get it wrong is a personal calamity for those affected and their family.

But just one more point: there are some who want the Government to set out every nuance and iteration of the UK negotiating strategy. I have the scars on my back of many hours of negotiating in Brussels and I know if you want to succeed you do not set out your negotiating position for all to see. So the last thing we should want is a running commentary. 

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The hopes and fears of rural business

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The Royal County of Berkshire Show never fails to entertain. My highlights this year were the return of the Army motorcycle display team, The White Helmets, and a brilliant New Zealander and his “sheep show”. I could explain the last one but you really have to see it. It’s laugh-out-loud stuff.

I also had some work to do at the show. I met with the Institute of Advanced Motoring to talk about the campaign to improve safety on the A34. I met with our local broadband provider, Gigaclear, to see how their roll-out of superfast broadband is working. I am starting to hear satisfied voices from some areas where many who missed out on the BT contract are now being connected. For a local MP the show is a great opportunity to meet, listen and learn from interests across the constituency. But most of all, it was a chance to catch up on the hopes and fears of rural business as we enter the uncertainties of Brexit and a time of volatile commodity prices.

I spoke to farmers and others at the Country Land and Business Association stand. I started by saying that there was more chance of an accurate forecast of what would happen to agriculture by consulting the clairvoyant who was to be found a few stands up on the same avenue. What I could offer was my belief that this was the time for bold ambition by the Government. There is much that is wrong with the Common Agricultural Policy and grim though I believe the referendum result to be, it does offer us the chance to create a new rural policy that combines support for farmers with an improved environment and, at its heart, a social policy. This means integrating housing, broadband, schools and business opportunities in rural areas. I believe we have to get away from the concept of farming subsidies. Good farmers manage the raw material (the land) from which many others benefit. The billions earned by tourism, retailers and other businesses, off the back of what farmers do, allow for some measure of support. In addition, farmers can be compensated for reduced income if, say, they ensure cleaner water comes off their land or if their management of the land can protect towns and villages from flooding. Despite the many current difficulties, I met many farmers optimistic for the future.  

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Richard Benyon was re-elected as the Member of Parliament for Newbury on 7 May 2015, with an increased majority of 26,368. Richard won 61 per cent of the vote share.



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