Being fair to our veterans

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I am a firm believer that our Armed Forces have to have the highest standards in how they conduct themselves in conflict. Having commanded men on operations I have seen at first-hand how they do just that. Indeed I would go further, I have seen young men remain calm amid provocation that would drive most people to uncontrolled violence. That is why having such professional armed forces is something of which we can all be proud.

Unfortunately an unpleasant industry has emerged in recent years where unscrupulous and politically motivated lawyers have used taxpayers' money to pursue veterans through a judicial process often long after they have left the military and decades after the incidents that are being investigated took place. The good news is that one of the worst of these lawyers, Phil Shiner, has been struck off and disgraced as a lawyer. He indulged in a systematic pursuit of members of the armed forces, past and present, lodging a staggering 2,470 criminal complaints. Most of these were done through a Government organisation called the Iraq Historic Abuse Team (Ihat). This organisation channelled funds through Mr Shiner’s law firm, even after his rule breaking had been reported to the solicitors' watchdog. 

At the same time there is a furious row in Parliament at the behaviour of another organisation. The Legacy Investigations Branch of the Police Service of Northern Ireland are looking into killings that took place during the troubles in Northern Ireland. Whilst only 302 of the 3200 deaths in the troubles were attributed to the security forces there seems to be a priority given to these cases over the vast majority that were at the hands of terrorists. When grandfathers are taken from their homes just before Christmas and taken to Northern Ireland for hours of questioning under caution, we are justified in asking what is going on.

Both of these situations have a profound effect on the sense of fairness and decency that we see as hallmarks of our society. It is time we introduced a statute of limitations that means that both sides can move on from the past. In Ihat’s case I firmly believe that the organisation should be closed down and legitimate cases of military wrong doing should be passed on to the Royal Military Police. As part of their remit they should be required to apply common sense through an understanding of the stress and strain of combat.  We owe it to the veterans of the past and those in our armed services now and in the future, to get this right.

 

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We can end rough sleeping

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On an average night across the country there are between 3500 and 5000 rough sleepers. In West Berkshire the average is around 14. The reasons why people are on the streets are varied and complex but in the fifth largest economy in the world we should be able to tackle this problem. There is the political will as the cross-party support for Bob Blackman’s Homelessness Reduction Bill has proved. And there is a groundswell of national and local will as well.

On a national scale, I am involved with two initiatives, both urgently wanting to see change and action. One is with the Centre for Social Justice which is producing a report for the Government looking at schemes which have worked to all but wipe out rough sleeping in other countries, and also at projects that have proved effective here in the UK. Its proposal to Government will be bold and innovative and evidence-based. The other is with the homeless charity Crisis which is working with the private rented sector to engage them as part of the solution.

In West Berkshire the homeless have a number of places to turn to. Places that work hard to keep people off the streets – the Council, usually the first port of call, Two Saints with its wayfarers’ beds and hostel rooms, Loose Ends for hot food, clothing, toiletries and advice, not to mention the Samaritans, the Salvation Army (which hosts the food bank), Citizens Advice and veterans charities. The same names do not crop up again and again on the Council’s longterm homeless list which indicates that their strategy is working and they are also investing in flats at Fountain Gardens for short term homeless provision. But as recent news coverage has exposed, rough sleeping is still a problem and in the coming weeks all those involved in providing for this vulnerable group are coming together - in the full knowledge that each case is different and usually complex – with a real desire to end something which we all feel is an affront in our modern age. 

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Making the best of Brexit

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The question for MPs like me who campaigned hard for Britain to remain in the EU is a simple one. Do I seek to undermine the decision taken in the referendum by being a sort of Parliamentary insurgent opposing Brexit at every stage, or do I engage with the process to help to ensure we get the best deal possible?

The risk from just being one of the “noises off” is that you are just that: off. I want to be on the pitch, holding up a liberal conservative view that believes in free trade and wants a deep and dynamic relationship with our European friends and allies in the future. We live in a world that is fast changing. Many jobs in which people currently feel secure, won’t exist in a few years’ time because of the advancement of automation and robotics. The ability of companies in West Berkshire to trade successfully will depend on being part of supply chains or grouping of businesses, some of which may be based both inside and outside the EU. The future, while full of opportunity, is complex and for many, scary.

So clarity is everything. I now accept that seeking an arrangement like Norway’s won’t work. This is where we would still pay into the EU, would still be subject to free movement of labour and all the other conditions of membership of the single market. The Eurosceptic ultras have a malign view of Europe, its cultures and traditions. They must not be allowed to become the established UK view. The Europhile ultras seem to want to ignore a democratic process and just whine and whinge from the side-lines. I will recognise the referendum result by supporting the triggering of Article 50 and will engage with leavers and remainers who share my dislike of the ultras on both sides. I will push for a deal that serves the needs of West Berkshire businesses and those who work for them. This will need understanding and support from the vast majority of my constituents who occupy the centre ground view that what we need is neither a hard or soft Brexit, but a clever one.

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Brighter Blue Monday

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The third Monday in January has become notorious for being Blue Monday, supposedly the glummest day of the year. I don’t know if you sprang out of bed on 16th January or whether it was really tough to get going, but this year for me Blue Monday had a real and positive significance.

It saw the launch of Brighter Berkshire, a community-led initiative to make 2017 the Year of Mental Health in Berkshire. There was no formal ribbon-cutting for this campaign, no suits, no speeches. Instead, it took the form of two hours of BBC Radio Berkshire prime time entirely given over to mental health and presented by people with real on-the-ground experience of this issue; the first of 12 similar monthly programmes that will run over the course of 2017.

This is a can-do campaign, dedicated to doing as much as possible to raise the profile of mental health, to reduce the stigma that surrounds it and challenge the injustices that face people with mental health problems, and to improve support and access to treatment. It is looking to network, to spread information, to put people in touch with others who might be able to help them, to bring the conversation about mental health out of the shadows into the open.

It is good news that this Government has recognised that mental health should have parity with physical health and only last week the PM announced new measures to improve mental health care for children and young people. But I know there is more to do to. I shall be talking about this a lot in 2017, Twitter followers be warned. My fellow MPs in Berkshire are all going to be doing the same. Take a moment to visit the Brighter Berkshire website, follow it on Twitter @BrightBerks2017 and get involved as well. Maybe Blue Monday will be a little brighter in 2018.

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Good and outstanding

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I know from my experience as a parent that schools are building up to a Christmas crescendo with excited children and increasingly exhausted teachers. So with the end of term approaching it is a good time to take a moment to applaud the extraordinary combined efforts by teachers, governors, parents and pupils that have contributed to the latest Ofsted figures.

 

These show that nine more schools in West Berkshire have been judged good or outstanding in their most recent inspection compared to 2015, which means that 70 of our local schools are now rated in those top two categories. In total, 13 schools in West Berkshire were rated ‘Outstanding’ by Ofsted at their last inspection, and 57 were rated ‘Good’. None were rated ‘Inadequate’. This means 22,100 pupils in the area attend schools that are rated good or outstanding (out of a total of 25,700 in Ofsted-rated schools). More broadly, across the South East as a whole, 234 more schools have been rated as good or outstanding, and across the country the proportion of all schools judged to be good or outstanding at their most recent inspection was 89 per cent – the highest proportion ever recorded. This means that the proportion of primary and secondary schools judged at these ratings are continuing to rise in every region of the country. As a result almost 1.8 million more children are now in good schools compared to 2010.

Much has been said about the proposal to increase the number of grammar schools but this should be seen in the context of the Government’s extensive plans to make more good school places available and to harness the resources and expertise of universities, independent and faith schools. I fully support the aim to make sure every child can access high quality education, so that they have the opportunity to go as far as their talents will take them, regardless of their background.

The school holidays are almost upon us and teachers will be taking a well-earned break. I hope they will be giving themselves an equally well-earned pat on the back. Ofsted inspections are hard work and stressful but when the feedback is good then schools should rightly celebrate. That figure of 22,100 pupils who now attend schools that are rated good or outstanding represents 22,100 improved life chances. That is really good news.

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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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