40 years ago the British people voted to join a Common Market and over the subsequent 4 decades it has become a political union. I'm proud that under David Cameron's leadership my generation of Conservatives have given the British people the chance to have their say in a Referendum.
I share much of the frustration felt by others at the growth of an unaccountable European bureaucracy, focused too much on driving a political union OF Europe instead of economic integration and prosperity IN Europe, which is why I have been a leading and active member of the Fresh Start Group of EU reformers, strongly supporting the Prime Minister's work for a New Deal in Europe, and working as a Minister to implement and deliver important reforms in the sector for which I am responsible, and to which the European Single Market is a major asset.
Whilst I have a lot of respect for the core argument that the EU has shaken the UK's sense of our own sovereignty and undermined our confidence in ourselves as a sovereign nation, I also believe that 'sovereignty' in the modern world of globalisation, corporate power, social media and an explosion of societal change is not the clear-cut concept it was. There are a myriad of forces undermining the traditional sense of a nation state as a single coherent entity behind its national borders, not just the EU.
Our world has changed dramatically since 1973. We face different challenges in a rapidly globalising economy and society. Technology and globalisation are profoundly changing our economy, society and politics.
This creates huge challenges and opportunities for the UK, and for the EU, and for the globe. So many of the issues we face - whether defence and security, environment, economy or society - require co-ordinated global action.
As a major economy and a former global power the UK is still a significant voice and force in the world - we were recently ranked no:1 in the world for 'soft power'. As such we cannot and must not shirk our international responsibilities. With huge instability in the Middle East; Russia and China aggressively re-militarising and a fragile global economy recovering from a tumultuous economic crash, we need strong trade and political ties to bind the nations of the world together.
The European Union needs to reform and modernise and become more global and entrepreneurial with a greater focus on the global competitiveness, prosperity and influence which ultimately underpin our security. If the UK were to leave I fear we would make the UK, Europe and the globe a less secure place, and hinder not help the process of global trade.
With the reforms negotiated by the Prime Minister we are now in a privileged position which reflects what most British people want: to be in the European single market but not run by Europe. The PM's reforms will enshrine in law for the first time in the history of the EU that the UK is inside the Single Market but never the Euro currency zone; inside the European right of free movement of citizens and labour and capital, with important protections on benefit tourism and our financial services sector, inside the EU but exempt from 'ever closer (political) union' with protections against a further creeping loss of sovereignty. It may not be perfect, but it’s a significant deal hard-won.
In my constituency in East Anglia, and in the sector of Life Sciences and the Bio-Economy for which I have the privilege of being the UK Minister, I strongly believe that withdrawal from the European Union would not be in our best interests. The jobs and prosperity being created in our area by the high growth businesses of tomorrow are strongly linked to our membership of the European Single Market, scientific community and to the UK's strong role in influencing the market regulatory framework of the EU.
There are no shortcuts or easy routes to solving the challenges we face. If only there were. "Brexit" wouldn't solve any of these problems. In fact the evidence suggests that - at best - the economic impact would be equivalent to another banking crash in terms of lost GDP/growth, even without possible trade barriers from the EU.
I don't dismiss that we could leave and survive. We could. But I think we'd be poorer. With less influence. With fewer friends in Europe. Leaving us more, not less, insecure in an insecure world.
This is a momentous decision for us all, and one that should be taken not for short term tactical political advantage but with our responsibilities to our country, our children and the global security and development - on whose sustainable development we all depend - at the fore.
For all of those reasons, respectful of the arguments of those who decide to go the other way, I believe our best interests are served by the renegotiated terms of our continuing membership of the European Union.
This is the first time voters have had a say on our membership of the EU since 1975. I am incredibly proud that it is this Government that is making sure we get the debate we need. Indeed, the Prime Minister’s decision to suspend collective responsibility and allow serving Cabinet Ministers to stay in Government while campaigning for a Leave vote is a sign of this openness.
However, I also believe it is right that the Government has an official position on this question. Following the Prime Minister’s announcement of the renegotiated terms for Britain’s continued membership, the Government announced that it believed Britain will be better off by remaining in the EU.
Given that decision, the Government has sought to provide more information for all voters through the recent leaflet campaign, with independent polling revealing that 85% of the public would like additional information from the Government itself. Such leaflets were also produced ahead of the EU referendum in 1975 and during the Scottish referendum in 2014, making sure all voters knew where the Government stood.
On a question of such vital importance for the future of the UK, I believe it is the duty of the Government to make sure it has a clear view, and that all the facts are known before the referendum takes place. It is also important to stress that the Vote Leave campaign group, recently chosen as the official Out campaign by the Electoral Commission, will also receive state support and funds.
Having a full debate on this issue is essential for the future direction of our country, and I will continue working with MPs, councillors and residents on all sides to make sure everyone’s voice is heard as we head towards June 23rd.
As we all know, the financial crisis and its aftermath were particularly tough for rural areas like ours. In 2010, when the Conservatives entered Government, there simply were no easy answers. With one of the highest deficits in the developed world, a welfare system that had spiralled out of control and with a mountain of debt run up by the previous Labour Government, difficult decisions had to be made.
Through all this, my central mission as your local MP has always been clear: to support the low-paid and fight for jobs and investment in our area. That’s why I launched my Norfolk Way project to help young people get the skills they need to find a job, worked with local businesses to support apprenticeships and fought for investment in our infrastructure (with the A11 and A47 dualled, and important upgrades to our rail service), further action on high-speed broadband and ring-fencing funding for our local hospitals and schools.
That’s also why I have been championing a new National Living Wage for the last five years. This will mean a £900-a-year pay rise for someone working full-time on the minimum wage. By 2020, it will reach more than £9 an hour, worth at least £4,800 a year extra in cash terms.
But I have always believed we must go further. That’s why I have supported major tax cuts for low-income families including a Tax Free Minimum Wage, taking three and a half million of the lowest paid out of income tax altogether and freezing both fuel duty and council tax for five successive years. Added to this, the increases in the personal allowance have already saved taxpayers £825 a year. The threshold will rise to £11,000 next April, with it reaching £12,500 by the next general election, as well as further reforms doubling the amount of free childcare funded for all 3 and 4 year olds to 30 hours a week and tax cuts across the board for 29 million people by 2016-17.
Alongside this, however, the reality is that some difficult decisions continue to have to be made. None of us want to see a situation where we pass on unpayable debts to the next generation. In the case of tax credits, the truth is that the cost has more than trebled since they were first introduced to over £30 billion a year.
The only way we can ensure we don’t burden the next generation with our debts is by putting in place the reforms needed to make the system sustainable, including tackling the tax credit bill and through introducing the new Universal Credit scheme. That’s why the Prime Minister has set out his vision for a higher-wage, lower-tax, lower-welfare society, where work always pays and money can be invested in the areas we all rely on: schools, hospitals and local services.
However, I know that many in our area are concerned about the impact this particular change will have. I am monitoring all feedback very closely and, as I did with Disability Living Alllowance reforms, I will always fight on behalf of affected constituents to get change where there is any unintended impact on the vulnerable. I have been in close contact with the Treasury team, and am continuing to raise concerns with Ministers to see what further options there are to address this.
Rest assured, I understand just how important this issue is and I will continue to fight on your behalf to make sure the Government does everything it can to back hard-working people, and make sure everyone’s voice is heard on this important issue.
I know that like me, many people are unhappy about the so called ‘Tampon Tax’ and, given the number of people who have contacted me on this matter I want to clarify that I too, believe we should repeal the VAT on sanitary products. I also think it is important to clarify some misinformation about the outcome of last Monday’s vote on the removing of VAT from sanitary products, or the “tampon tax”.
When in Government, Labour spoke of amending the VAT on sanitary products, however were unable to do so. Likewise, the French government have attempted to abolish the same tax, but have also failed. This is because the tax falls under EU legislation.
EU legislation stipulates that luxury items, sanitary products included even though we do not regard them as a luxury at all, should be taxed between 5%-20% (currently the UK applies a 5% VAT on tampons – the lowest amount allowed under the current EU law). Many years ago, during the harmonisation negotiations between EU member states, the UK managed to negotiate a 0% VAT on many “luxury” items, such as children’s clothes, certain food products and newspapers, however sanitary products were not part of those negotiations.
Therefore, to nationally decrease the VAT on sanitary products to 0%, without the consent of the European Commission would be unlawful and ultimately overturned by the European Courts. Last Monday’s debate was not about whether there should be a tax on sanitary products – the UK Government believes there shouldn’t be -rather the debate centred on how get the tax lifted, via the EU.
The outcome of this was an agreement to include a 0% VAT on sanitary items with the government’s negotiations as to the UKs EU membership rules. Therefore this will be included within the powers the UK seek to regain from EU control.
In short, the Government wants to abolish VAT on sanitary items but cannot do so without the EU changing its law and we will therefore be negotiating with other EU countries to secure this change.
The Prime Minister’s commitment to give the British people the choice on our EU membership and to use that to renegotiate a number of vital areas gives us a chance to sort out some of the problems we have had with the EU for many years, including this. As a founder of the Fresh Start Campaign I have been leading the work on a range of areas for Reform and Renegotiation and continue to push for a package of Reforms before the British people have the ultimate choice.
I know that, like me, many of my constituents have been saddened to hear of the number of Syrian people who have lost their lives attempting to flee from the horrors they have experienced in their home country.
Whilst there are a number of wider implications to consider regarding the level of immigration in Europe, I believe it is crucial to acknowledge that this is not about economic migration, but rather about helping genuine refugees from a humanitarian disaster.
As a traditional values and a compassionate Conservative, my starting point is that we have responsibilities, whether as citizens in our own community or as a nation in the wider global community, to support others in their time of need (the issue is particularly close to my heart as during my childhood, my own family took in and helped two Biafran refugees). These are the hallmark of a civilised society.
I hugely welcome the Prime Minister’s announcement that we will be making special provisions to help the refugees in Syria, while also maintaining our determination to tackle the instability that underlies the whole crisis in the Mediterranean. You will remember that one of the reasons that the Prime minister was so committed to intervening in Syria two years ago was to prevent the horrors that have now befallen Syria as a failed state and caused the current refugee crisis.
The truth is that with 50 million potential asylum seekers around the world and international travel easier than ever, it is in our interest to do everything we can to prevent the crises in parts of Africa and the Middle East in particular, which is where our international development trade and security policies come together. As I spoke often about during the election campaign, our aid, trade and security are fundamentally linked.
Despite some reports in the press, I can assure you that the Government has been, and continues to, work hard on this issue. To date, the United Kingdom has already pledged £900 million in aid, making our country the second highest bilateral donor of humanitarian aid in the world. In addition to the financial support, we have already granted protection to over 5,000 Syrians since the crisis began and we continue our efforts to tackle the organised trafficking gangs seeking to profit this tragic human misery. The Prime Minister announced on Monday that the United Kingdom will provide a safe haven to 20,000 refugees from within Syria’s borders too.
Rest assured, I shall continue to take an active interest in this ongoing issue.