THE DUGGAN INQUEST
On Sunday 12 January 2014 Bob appeared on BBC 1's Sunday Politics programme. He was asked about his view of the Mark Duggan Inquest and particularly the jury's verdict that it was 'lawful killing' by the Police. Bob agreed with that verdict and made a couple of other points in support of the police..
He pointed out that Mark Duggan had a gun in his car and he shouldn't have done. He asked people to put themselves in the position of a police officer faced by a man who comes out of a car with a gun in his hand which might or might not be fired. Bob pointed out that the police officer had seconds to decide whether to fire himself - not the three months that the inquest has taken to look at the matter in minute detail. He asked again 'What the heck was he (Mark Duggan) doing with a gun in his car?'.
THOUGHTS ON SYRIA
It is Christmas 2013, the weather is foul and I have been thinking about how appallingly freezing it must be for the people of Syria who are stuck in tented camps at the moment. The conditions cannot be too dissimiliar to those of late December 1992 when in the freezing cold and snow my soldiers in Bosnia escorted over 2,000 civilians to safety across the front lines. I recall the temperature was about minus 15 degrees Centigrade and I remember carrying a child over the lines and a sniper taking a shot at the two of us as I did so! Those two thousand people in Bosnia only had what they could carry and were very wretched. So twenty one years later I cannot help but remember those poor people and, of course, that turns my mind again to what is happening in and around Syria this Christmas.
My view remains that we should not, indeed cannot, take effective military action in Syria. But, one way or other, we cannot just walk away either. To say a blanket ‘no military action' under any circumstances would be wrong. All options to help the people of Syria should remain on the table - at least so as not to tie the hands of negotiators who are doing their best to sort out the situation there.
In my view it is also high time that Arab League and the Arab World more generally took more responsibility for sorting out their own region. They cannot continue to blame us because of our historic involvement in the area. In truth we have trained and armed many of the Arab World's professional uniformed services and perhaps they should start to put that training into effect by helping their neighbouring states more.
For our part, since 2001, we have intervened in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya - albeit with good intentions - but our efforts on behalf of people who live there have either gone wrong or simply not been appreciated. Most importantly, of course, we have played a high blood price in military lives in two of those operations. As an ex-soldier who has been committed into almost impossible situations myself I am reluctant in the extreme to send our armed forces into action unless there is a very good reason.
I really believe that no outside state can do anything effective in Syria without a mandate to do so from the Security Council of the United Nations. As the highest authority in the World the Security Council must be involved and give any such operations legitimacy. Having been a UN Commander myself I frequently cited my Security Council Mandate as my authority for action in Bosnia and it often worked or at least I liked to think it did. But right now two Permananent Members of the Secufrity Council;, with veto rights, have refused to consider establishing even a limited mandate to help Syria.
As I have previously mentioned my mind is not totally closed to some limited form of military involvement. I believe that sometimes we have a Christian or moral duty to help human beings who are less fortunate than ourselves - even when it may not be a vital national interest. That is how I felt when I commanded the British in Bosnia and my view remains unchanged.
Right now public opinion may not want us to take any form of military action but, in my experience, that could change rapidly if circumstances on the ground in Syria compel it. Exactly that happened in Bosnia after July 1995 when over 7,000 boys and men were massacred at Srebrenica. The Public suddenly demanded effective action. In 1995 I was a Colonel and Chief of Policy in NATO's European Military Headquarters. I had handed over command in Bosnia some 2 years before by then.
But in March 1993 I personally had organised the digging of a mass grave for over a hundred men, women and children and I remember being terribly bitter about the fact that the UK was simply sitting on its hands and saying we should not get further involved. I can tell you that was not what my soldiers were saying as they picked up the broken bodies of children! I say this to demonstrate that sometimes I believe we should be a force for good - where and when we can. It might, just might, be required in Syria at some stage, who knows?
Syria is a very difficult problem and I have thought long and hard about it. At the moment I remain very much against the deployment of British combat forces there. But I suppose I might contemplate our military involvement in some lesser way - maybe escorting humanitarian aid as I did myself in Bosnia durting 1992-93. I would much prefer our involvement to remain humanitarian in nature rather than any form of fighting role but, as I stated earlier, we should rule nothing out. The spectre of international inaction and then lots of dead innocents still haunts me from from my time in Bosnia.
BOVINE TB AND THE BADGER CULL
Bovine tuberculosis (bTB) is an infectious disease of cattle and one of the biggest challenges facing the cattle farming industry today. It is caused by bacterium which can also infect and cause TB in badgers, deer, goats, pigs, camelids (llamas and alpacas), dogs and cats, as well as many other mammals. There seems no doubt though that bTB among cattle is being spread by the urine of badgers.
So far in the UK it is particularly prevalent in the West and South West of England but it is spreading throughout the country year on year. As yet South East England is not infected by it. Obviously farmers in Kent, Sussex and Surrey, around us, want its onward progress to be arrested.
From 1 January 2002 to 31 December 2012 more than 305,000 cattle were compulsory slaughtered as a result of bTB. In 2013 up until 30 September a further 24,600 cattle were slaughtered. This has cost the Government more than £500 million in compensation over the last 10 years and these costs are estimated to double by 2023 if the situation is not addressed.
Ireland has had a comprehensive eradication programme which includes the targeted culling of badgers. Since 2000 there has been a 45 per cent reduction in bTB there.
However bTB is a very complex bacterial disease and developing an effective vaccine is proving very difficult. The only licensed vaccine, the Bacillus Calmette-Guerin vaccine (BCG) provides only limited protection in about 60 per cent of cases. However the Government is investing heavily in the search for a more viable vaccine. Since 1998 more than £23 million has been spent on developing a cattle vaccine and oral badger vaccine. A further £9.3 million over the next 4 years has been allocated in the search for such a solution.
A further problem is that, in tests, it is very difficult to identify whether cattle have been vaccinated or actually have bTB. A checking procedure developed by Professor Glyn Hewinson, Chief Scientist at the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, called the DIVA test, may help,
But the European Union needs to be convinced of the efficacy of these procedures and this is vital. If the European Union does not accept the BCG vaccine coupled with the DIVA Test then we will not be able to export live cattle, meat or dairy products. Currently the European Union is suggesting that it will take at least 5 years to be convinced by field trials. Apparently it will take 8 – 10 years at a minimum to get a licensed vaccine for cattle.
Thus in late summer 2013 a limited trial of badger culling – to see what impact it would have on bTB - was carried out in West Gloucestershire and West Somerset. But the number of badgers killed was far less than expected and this obviously impacts on the trial. Those that were against the whole idea of such a trial have again called for its cessation. As I now understand it a so-called Independent Expert Panel is expected to report with its findings shortly.
My own view until now has been to back the UK’s Chief Veterinary Officer who maintained that the trial cull of badgers was a necessary evil. However, given its apparent limited success, I will await the findings of the Independent Expert Panel to see whether I stick to that opinion.
HUNTING WITH HOUNDS
A small number of constituents have written to me on the subject of hunting with hounds. They are very much against any suggestion of there being a repeal of the current law which forbids, particularly foxhunting using packs of dogs. To be straight the matter is not a big issue in Beckenham; the last foxhunt with hounds started from Beckenham Junction Station in 1901 which is 112 years ago. Personally I have never hunted myself and feel no great urge to do so either. That having been said I would dearly like to see reductions in the Beckenham fox population; they are everywhere!
In South East London are little affected by whether there is a ban or not but friends of mine who live in the countryside argue passionately that hunting with hounds should be allowed once more. I have some sympathy with their view that it is rightly a matter for those who do not live in towns.
But for my part and the moment I am content with the law as it stands. Nonetheless, should the whole matter return to the House of Commons for another decision, of course, I will be forced to think again about the whole subject.
THE SPARE ROOM SUBSIDY
The new policy of removing the spare room subsidy is aimed at those of working age (but not pensioners) who live in social housing and have their rent paid through Housing Benefit. People with special needs, such as the requirement for life enhancing machinery in that spare room or for a carer to stay overnight in it, will be unaffected.
There is strong public support for reducing under-occupation and overcrowding in social housing according to an Ipsos MORI opinion poll produced on 8 November 2013. Seventy-eight per cent of people interviewed said they thought it important to sort out the problem which has led to one-third of social housing tenants who receive Housing Benefit, living in homes that are too big for their needs. Only 14 per cent of people disagreed with a further 9 per cent undecided. The poll also found that 54 per cent also agreed that it is fair for people of working age, who live in social housing to receive less Housing Benefit if they possess more bedrooms than they need. Despite what some say, reducing Housing Benefit is not a ‘bedroom tax’ because their accommodation is paid for by the State.
There are nearly one million spare bedrooms being paid for by Housing Benefits, yet at the same time hundreds of thousands of families are living in overcrowded social housing. Frequently I have people come to my surgery asking me to help them get another bedroom because their whole family has to sleep in one room. I know too that in the London Borough of Bromley there are 6,000 people waiting for social housing, many wanting more bedrooms, yet there are many instances of one person living in a three bedroomed social housing on their own.
In the UK the Housing Benefit bill now exceeds £24 billion a year – an increase of 50 per cent over the last 10 years. Iain Duncan-Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, has told me in person that his Department now pays over 40 per cent of the housing rents in the County. Of course we have to get this spiralling cost under control.
Some suggest cutting the Spare Room Subsidy is a new matter. But in fact all the Coalition Government has done is extend the measure from private to social housing. The last Government actually introduced the Spare Room Subsidy in 2008 but only for people renting from the Private Sector. This fact is not widely known.
Of course, if there are special circumstances involved, Bromley Council has the discretion to take these into account and the Government has allocated money to them for this to happen.
Finally I don't particularly like the idea of people being forced to downsize their homes but neither do I like the idea that the thought of the taxpayer having to subsidise spare bedrooms for those on Housing Benefits when so many others, often on Housing Benefits themselves, are living in grossly overcrowded conditions because of it. That is grossly unfair.
THE EUROPEAN UNION AND NEED FOR A REFERENDUM
Bob has long been sceptical about the value to this country of the European Union. In 1975 he remembers voting to join an economic treaty and just that - nothing more. Since then he believes the organisation has far exceeded its original trading purposes and he is very unhappy about the current way the European Union operates - particularly in the political and social sphere.
Since being elected Bob has consistently argued that the British people should be given a referendum on membership of the European Union. He is thus delighted that the Government is now set to institute such a referendum on the European Union by the end of 2017.
Bob's position on Europe as recorded in Hansard (the official record of parliamentary proceedings):
13 October 2010 voted against any increase to the European Union Budget.
24 October 2011 voted with 79 other Conservative MPs to institute an immediate referendum on the European Union.
13 December 2011 suggested in the Commons that the Presidents of France and Germany wanted to use the European Union to carry out a financial raid on the City of London which raises 11 per cent of our national income.
26 January 2012 suggested in the Commons that European Union regulations should be abandoned with the comment 'Scrap them!'
22 February 2012 suggested in the Commons that the European Union Civil Service should be downsized in the same way as was happening to our Home Civil Service.
31 October 2012 suggested in the Commons that the European Union should make the same percentage portion of cuts to budgets as in the United Kingdom.
5 July 2013 made his position as clear as possible and stated in the Commons that, 'If there was a vote (on Europe) immediately, I would vote to come out, but now we are going to have an alternative plan. It is good that we have four years to try and get it right, so the British people can say, "Actually we like the end result the Prime Minister has negotiated" - or say that they don't, and we leave. In my opinion that makes a pretty good fist of dealing with this problem.'
29 November 2013 voted with the Government to hold a referendum on Europe before the end of 2017.
Very little matters more than getting our national books balanced so that our children and those that follow us can have a decent lifestyle in this great country of ours. President Bill Clinton once put it very simply by stating, 'It's the economy stupid!' Sadly there was no painless or easy way out of the mess our country was in when we Conservatives took it over from the Labour Party in 2010. On average, for every year from 2001 - 2010, the Labour Government spent £105 for every £100 available. Then to compound that felony it also sold off our Gold Reserves at a rock bottom price. The United Kingdom was already in a dreadful economic state when the World Banking Crisis hit. Because of all this things have been very difficult for the last three and a half years; of that there can be no doubt..
However there are now signs of improvement. Our country's deficit has been cut by a third. Over 1.4 million jobs have been created in the Private Sector since the General Election: two in the Private Sector for every one lost in the Public Sector. It is simply unsustainable for the country to have so many people on out of work benefits. By capping and changing the benefits mess we are not destroying the Welfare State but modernising, if not saving it. Iain Duncan-Smith, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, himself told me that his Department is still responsible for 40 per cent of all the social and private rents paid in the UK. That is a huge amount of money given out by taxpayers. Crime is down by ten per cent and immigration by a third. Those are notable achievements considering the poor hand we were dealt.
We are not there yet of course but we have made a good start - despite the irkesome shackles of being in a coalition government. Of course I regret very much cutting Defence and Police budgets whilst spending on Schools, Hospitals,Pensions and Overseas Aid is largely unaffected. But all this grief will be worth it if the economy recovers. Maybe we have turned the corner but we mustn't think we are there yet and it is thus crucial that the Conservatives are returned to power in May 2015.
THE NEED FOR FOOD BANKS
There are currently no food banks in the Beckenham Constituency. In fact the nearest food banks I can locate are in Orpington, going East, or North West to Battersea. In principle they work as follows. People needing emergency food supplies are normally given food bank vouchers by social workers or doctors. At the food bank they are then presented with three days’ worth of food.
Of course it is tragic that food banks are necessary. Some have argued that the situation in the UK is dire compared to other countries but that may not be borne out by facts. I understand that one in 88 people visit food banks in France whereas one in 181 do so in this country. According to the leading food bank charity, the Trussell Trust, out of a population of 63 million in UK, 60,000 visit food banks whereas, in Germany, with a population of 82 million, about 1,500,000 rely on them. Across the Atlantic in Canada, with a 35 million population, some 830,000 use food banks. I say this to explain that the food bank problem is not unique to this country.
What can be done? Well, the best way for dependence on food banks to reduce is to get more people off benefits – whether they be working benefits or not. It is excellent news that the Coalition Government has increased people in employment since 2010 by 1,250,000. In addition it has taken 2,700,000 people out of tax altogether, raising the tax threshold and 25 million people in total have had their taxes cut. I emphasise this because if people have more money the number needing food banks would drop in some form of proportion.
Like everyone I dislike the idea and need for food banks which are largely run by charities; such as the Trussell Trust and churches. But, in fairness, the Government also gives money to food banks. For instance eighty one Trussell Trust run food bank franchises have received Government funding.
Finally I dearly wish there was no need for food banks. But clearly there is a requirement for them. I recognise this fact and will do all I can to reduce dependency on them both now and in future.
FLOODING IN THE CONSTITUENCY
The weather since before Christmas has been quite dreadful. Many trees have been lost and many residents have had extensive damage to parts of their properties - many fences are down and some sheds (including one in my garden) have been flattened. However the worst threat has come from flooding. The main reason is that the water table has reached the surface in some areas - particularly along the path of the old River Bourne where Courtfield Rise and Sparrows Den have suffered as a result. Some blocked culverts have now been cleared but there is more to do. Bob has talked to residents and has been amazed at their cheerfulness and resilience. Very sadly the Beccehamians Rugby Club's Pitches are now a massive lake which will take a long while to drain away. This is particulary sad as a huge amount of work was done a few years ago to drain the Club's grassed areas. The London Fire Brigade has told Bob that they will be remaining in the Courtfield Rise and Sparrows Den area until the water is no longer a threat to households. Local emergency services, directed by Bromley Council, have done a great job in response - particularly the Environment Agency and London Fire Brigade.
IMMIGRATION FROM THE EUROPEAN UNION AND ELSEWHERE
On 19 December 2013 Bob took part in a Westminster Hall debate aimed at restricting the rights of Rumanians and Bulgarians to enter the United Kingdom with effect from 1 January 2014. Two weeks before he had signed the Mills Amendment which suggested that no such rights should be agreed until 2018 - after the proposed European Referendum had been held. In the debate Bob argued that as our economy improves so would the attractiveness to Rumanians and Bulgarians of coming to the United Kingdom.
Bob also feels that we should be much more strict on immigration from outside the Eueopean Union. This has been hugely out of control in the past and is still not good enough despite the fact that the Government has cut immigration by a third since 2010. More obviously needs to be done. In extremis he favours a moratorium on all but life and death immigration situations until we know exactly who is coming in and who is quitting our country. In principle he feels that we should aim for the number of people entering the UK to equal those leaving us.