Apparently there was quite a lot going on in Parliament last week but I was free from the media feeding-frenzy being in the Middle East with the Defence Select Committee. It is a sobering experience visiting countries on the front line in the war against the murderous jihadist cult called Daesh. While there are some refugee camps, the vast majority of displaced Syrians are living among Jordanians and Lebanese in their towns and villages. In Jordan I visited a British funded training project for the Jordanian Army. It made me hugely proud to see Arabic speaking British Army officers embedded into the Jordanian Army and making it better. In Lebanon I travelled around Beirut in an armoured Toyota visiting Ministers and others to hear about their deep gratitude for what Britain is doing to help them tackle Daesh and cope with refugees. In both these countries the fight is an existential one. Their enemy would like nothing more than to take over these countries, murdering their rulers and any not conforming to their ghastly ways. Keeping these countries stable and secure is vital to our interests in so many ways, not least because their loss would cause a migrant crisis that would make current pressures on Europe pale into insignificance.
Whether it was chatting to aircrews at RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus or seeing what we are doing for fragile countries bearing the brunt of the refugee crisis, I was left with huge pride in the servicemen and women, the diplomats and aid workers we send to these countries and for the job they do.
One in every 120 people in the world is a refugee or displaced from their home in their own country. Most of these are far from our shores in countries that are least able to cope. When the EU agreed to relocate 160,000 refugees, Britain was exempted from this arrangement but rightly chose to spend generous sums supporting refugees in the Middle East as well as accepting around 20,000 Syrians in Britain. This is a problem that will not go away. The brutal civil war in Syria will take a decade for the protagonists to fight their way to a weary standstill. In that time Britain will need to be a leader, engaged in Europe and beyond. This is as much in our own interests as it is for the many troubled parts of the world.
We now know that the referendum will be on 23rd June. This will be the most important decision to affect this country’s fortunes for at least the next 30 years. The weekend before David Cameron’s marathon negotiation I too was in Brussels. I lead the UK delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. NATO is headquartered in Brussels and I was there with representatives from all member countries. In every break in proceedings delegates from almost every ally including the USA, would come up to me and ask incredulously whether Britain was likely to actually walk away from the EU. Their almost universal belief was that at a time when the continent was facing greater threats to its security than for a generation, why would a key member weaken Europe?
Back at home those wanting to leave have got to explain what would happen after Brexit. Some say we should join the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) and be like Norway. This means we will still pay as much to be part of EFTA with no say in how it operates. We would still be required to have free movement of people from within the EU. Others in the leave camp say no, Britain will strike out on its own doing free trade agreements with countries by ourselves through the World Trade Organisation. Really? The WTO hasn’t done a trade deal in over a decade. The US says that it couldn’t start trade talks with the UK for at least another decade as it is totally concentrating on trade deals such as the one with, yes, the EU.
Of all times this is the most ludicrous moment to be considering leaving. This is because Europe is moving our way. The Digital Single Market is about to be signed. This is of massive importance to the UK with over 70% of all digital businesses in Europe being British. It will add billions of pounds to the UK’s sales, to the benefit of small and medium companies in West Berkshire. The Services Single Market, which will totally change the balance of trade between the UK and Europe, will make us a net exporter, adding 7% to each household’s income.
I am ambitious for Britain. I hope that in the coming months we will think about Britain’s place in the world and what is in our own self-interest. They all lead me to the same conclusion.
In recent weeks much of my time has been taken in trying to get parts of Government to address a major financial issue that risks making life difficult for us here in West Berkshire. The grant Government sends to local authorities is calculated by a formula that at this moment penalises a small unitary authority like West Berkshire Council. It is particularly frustrating because West Berkshire has a well-run Council that has done all that has been asked of it in recent years. It has maintained a high level of services while either freezing Council Tax or limiting rises to below inflation. It has maintained reserves to as near to minimum as possible so that the maximum possible can be spent on services and supporting the vulnerable.
Along with the leadership of the Council, I have been able to support the changes made to local government finances in the last five years because it was important that all levels of Government played its part in getting our national finances sorted out. But what has happened this year is wrong. I am glad to say that, working with other MPs and the Council, we have made progress. Last week the Secretary of State, Greg Clark, announced a partial lifeline. West Berkshire will get an extra £1.4 million a year for two years to help transition to a new funding system. This helps but it does not get us out of the woods.
I am now concentrating on two fronts. I want the Government to provide money it promised to pay for the costs of implementing the new Care Act. This welcome piece of legislation guarantees a higher level of social care but comes at a cost. West Berkshire has been in dispute with Whitehall about the costs of this provision. Secondly I want a reform of how business rates are allocated. At the click of a mouse some bureaucrat in the Valuations Office can transfer vital income away from a Council like West Berkshire, to another authority by reallocating rates for large business premises such as the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston. Ministers are sympathetic to my attempts to sort out this anomaly but I have yet to get a firm solution. If I can help nail these two issues down West Berkshire Council can set its budget in a way that means it can still maintain libraries, children’s centres and important charities like Mencap who provide invaluable support for families with disabled children.
It was not my intention to write about the EU referendum until nearer the referendum but, as this subject is engaging so many people, perhaps that time is now. The EU’s draft new deal for Britain, published last week, delivers substantial change in all four areas that Britain asked for. It ensures that our country is not bound up in ever closer union in Europe. It makes Europe more competitive. It ensures that, while keeping the pound, we are protected from discrimination by the Eurozone. And it addresses a key pull factor drawing migrants from within the EU to Britain. David Cameron is the first Prime Minister since 1975 to take power away from the EU.
For me, it is crucial that the draft text sets out in full the special status accorded to the UK and clearly carves us out of further political integration. Of course, the changes are not enough for those whose agenda is to leave the EU altogether: no renegotiation would be sufficient for them. However, the reforms address key public concerns and offer a path towards a fresh settlement for Britain in a reformed European Union. This would give us the best of both worlds. We would be outside the euro, and protected from deeper integration, but able to access the single market. We would remain in the world’s greatest trading block of over 500 million people, but still be outside the Schengen area and so able to maintain our borders.
There is one more key factor that draws me to the “remain” campaign. Europe faces huge threats, not just from mass migration. Malign forces such as Russia’s President Putin, want nothing more than to see the EU weakened and no longer as an effective rule maker and economic power house on its western flank. Britain voting to leave the EU would mean it would be weakened and perhaps in terminal decline as it struggles with economic and social uncertainty. We will always be geographically European. I want us in there leading Europe towards prosperity and peace for future generations.