More heat than light?

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There are many good reasons for leaving the EU. There, I said it. Yes me, a card-carrying member of Stronger In, Conservatives In, Environmentalists for Europe, Countryside In and, if it existed, Newbury Pigeon Fanciers for In. I just think that the case for leaving is far outweighed by the case for remaining. But I am just one vote. With just three weeks to go I have come to a realisation. Our media and the London-centric chatterati do not share the same view on this as people outside the M25. Most people in the real world are not actually interested in what Boris may have said to Dave or what Nigel thinks of Michael, or whether Jeremy will share a platform with Dave or who made Boris' bus (yes, this is apparently an issue). Most of the electorate are having a serious think about this on their own or with their families, colleagues and friends.

 

Hustings in town and village halls are the warp and weave of politics for people like me and I like the opportunity to have a verbal tussle with political opponents. But as in elections there is a tendency to find that the majority of those coming to such events are doing so in support of one side or the other. Their minds are made up and they just see hustings in the same context as street theatre. But for the genuinely undecided, hustings often generate more heat than light. So I have decided to do something different.

 

I am having a series of conversations in the constituency. The first is on Friday 3rd June at the Burdwood Centre, Thatcham (starting at 6.30pm). The second is on Friday 10th June at Newbury Rugby Club (starting at 7pm). The object is not for me, or others attending, to harangue an audience but to calmly make the case why I believe Britain's future is better in the EU, and to take questions. I hope the "leave" campaign will do the same so that the genuinely undecided can have a similar conversation there. Of course there’s nothing wrong with a good argument, it is an indicator of vibrant democracy. But I hope this recognises that for many this is a difficult decision with huge implications and they deserve to be taken seriously.

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The Queen's Speech

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The Queen’s Speech this week, announcing the Government’s legislative programme for the year, included a number of measures which are especially relevant to us in West Berkshire.

A Digital Economy Bill will put new obligations on broadband providers to make sure that everyone has access to an affordable high speed internet connection. The Government believes that it is on track to get superfast broadband to 95 per cent of households by next year, and this week restated its determination to ensure that the final 5 per cent are not left behind. The Universal Service Obligation will mean that even the most remote areas will be legally entitled to fast broadband by 2020.

I’ve been pressing hard for measures to close the “digital divide” and the contract with Gigaclear ensures that rural West Berkshire is ahead of the game on this: 99.9% of households in West Berkshire, not already connected with BT or Virgin, are already on track to get superfast broadband.

A Local Growth and Jobs Bill represents the biggest change in local finance for decades, giving local authorities full control of the money they raise through business rates, so they can attract business and investment to their local areas. This is a change that I have been pressing Ministers to make and will go some way to resolving the very difficult funding issues faced by West Berkshire Council this year.

Also welcome is a Neighbourhood Planning and Infrastructure Bill which is intended to reform planning and give local communities more power to control and shape their own area. The Education for All Bill will include the new funding formula to deliver the Government’s manifesto commitment for fair schools funding - a really welcome measure which I am keen to see enacted in West Berkshire. Our schools are not funded fairly and deserve equal treatment. Finally, with my interest in defence, I was pleased that this Queen’s Speech put investment in Britain’s armed forces on the agenda, together with securing the long-term future of our nuclear deterrent and giving our security and intelligence agencies the powers they need to keep us safe.

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A tale of two businesses

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Xtrac is one of the most exciting medium-sized companies in the country. It makes high precision transmission systems (gear boxes to you and me) mainly for the motor sport industry. It employs around 400 people, most of them at its factory in Thatcham. The company is owned by its workers and it takes on around four apprentices each year in an arrangement with Newbury College. I visited them last week with the Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javid. Every time I visit Xtrac I leave with the warm glow you can only get from seeing a great company in action. Sajid had the same experience and it is vital that the success of this company becomes the model for so many more. Xtrac exports 77% of what it makes. Around half of this goes to the EU. The company’s award-winning Chairman, Peter Digby, said he was old enough to remember what trading in Europe was like before the single market. He and others leading this remarkable business have firmly pinned their colours to the “remain” side of the EU referendum debate.

Business excellence was something of a theme last week because I also got to visit a Newbury-based precision farming company called SOYL where I presented them with an innovation award. This was for iSOYL, a precision farming app developed by SOYL for the iPad and used by UK farmers. This spectacular piece of technology sits in the tractor cab and using satellite data it automatically regulates the amount of sprays and fertilizer that is applied to crops. It ensures that only what is required is applied. It ensures that features such as rivers and grass headlands are protected. The farmer saves money and the environment benefits. This product now has considerable export potential.

These two companies are world beaters and both have chosen West Berkshire as their home. They are part of the success story that has unemployment in West Berkshire at just 0.5% and economic growth outperforming much of the rest of the country.

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Top cop elections

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Anthony Stansfeld has been re-elected as the Thames Valley’s Police and Crime Commissioner. This role came into effect four years ago and a lack of understanding about it saw people elected on astonishingly low turnouts. This time the turnout was still pretty low but considerably higher than last time. There is perhaps more understanding that this role matters. Anthony is responsible for spending £365 million of your money each year. A sizable part of this amount is raised locally through a supplement to your Council Tax bill. Anthony has to focus the police on the key priorities he has put to the electorate. He has to juggle limited funds while coping with a wide range of demands for police activity. As well as what you might call routine police work such as traffic patrols, dealing with break-ins and keeping big events like football matches safe, Thames Valley Police have extra demands on their resources. Following the child sexual exploitation cases in Oxford they have had to put a lot of time and effort into investigating these cases and ensuring that the chances of this dreadful crime happening again anywhere are as limited as possible. They have responsibility for large rural communities which brings its own challenges in terms of policing. They also have a large number of high profile individuals to protect. These include, of course, the Queen and the Prime Minister.

Regardless of the fact that Anthony and I are from the same party, I think he deserved the endorsement he got from the electorate on Thursday. His determination to reduce crime has resulted in record low crime rates and an improving detection rate. He has maintained a balance between urban and rural crime. He has also put resources into protecting vulnerable people from exploitation. All of this has been done at a time when the police have had to face new terrorist threats and emerging crimes such as cyber fraud. He has achieved this with an honest, no-nonsense approach and, importantly for anyone in public office, a degree of humour. I wish him well for his next four year term.

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Coping with bereavement

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Last Thursday I attended an event to mark 30 years of a wonderful charity called Cruse Bereavement Care. As its name implies, it provides counselling for those facing the death of a loved one. The TV and radio presenter Anne Diamond spoke at the event. It was a fascinating and enthralling talk because she spoke so frankly about her own experience of losing a child to sudden infant death syndrome, or cot death as it is sometimes known. When her four month old son died inexplicably 25 years ago her experience would have been happening to, on average, three other sets of parents on that dreadful day. 2500 babies died each year in Britain. That number dropped dramatically over night following her campaign to encourage babies to be put to sleep on their backs rather than on their stomachs. Using data collated in New Zealand she eventually got the Government of the day here to launch a massive public information campaign. The number of cot deaths has now dropped to just 300 a year. Each of those is, of course, a terrible tragedy for every family but the fact that around 2100 families are not having that experience is such a wonderful legacy of her tragedy.

On Monday I was the starter at the Crafty Craft Race on the canal at Kintbury. This annual event raises funds for good causes and is a wacky, fun-filled event full of English eccentricity. A group of young people had entered three crafts in the race. They were dressed just as outrageously as all the others and were having just as many laughs but one got the sense that there was beneath it all a more serious purpose. They were all friends of James Ballantyne, a lad from Hungerford who was killed last year in a car accident. His friends have set up a fund to support and encourage young engineers like James. The James Ballantyne Memorial Fund is way for people to channel their grief so some positives can be gained from tragedy. Their story, like Anne Diamond’s, was one which can never fill the hole in their lives but is still an example of triumph coming out of adversity.

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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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