Robert Buckland states the reformist case for Britain’s being at the heart of Europe

Nik Darlington 4.20pm

TRG vice-president Robert Buckland had an article on ConservativeHome yesterday, in which he argued forcefully for Britain’s role at the head of the European table.

Robert rattled off a list of British achievements in Europe that really ought to be better known and understood: reform of the CFP, for instance, despite coming up against seemingly implacable entrenched interests.

Moreover, Robert claims, it is largely because Britain is so much more influential in Europe than we oft imagine, that David Cameron’s historic Bloomberg speech was received with such seriousness around the EU.

"Chancellor Merkel…has some sympathy with our reformist aims; without her support, the budget cut would not have been achieved. She realises that the EU must be more efficient and competitive. Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, shares our desire to see some powers repatriated to the Member States… Alexander Stubb, Foreign Minister of Finland, recognises that there has already been a lot of differentiation within the EU. He understands that an identikit EU is not the be-all and end-all to the European project."

Underpinning Mr Cameron’s bold statement last month is, I believe, a profound ambition to recast the European Union in its entirety and for the benefit of all its members - including Britain. European leaders have taken notice.

Finally, Robert sets out a case for remaining at the heart of Europe, and a case we shall hear a lot more of as the date of an in-out referendum approaches.

"History has surely taught us that we must stay at the heart of Europe precisely so that we can reform it. Whether we like it or not, our fortunes are intricately linked with those of the continent. Instead of shouting from the sidelines, Britain is taking its place again at the head of the table, helping the EU to face up to its many problems."

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The transatlantic trade pact is a death knell for euroscepticism

Alexander Pannett 1.15 pm

On Wednesday, the EU and US announced plans to forge a free trade area within two years, that would see tariffs removed and markets liberalised between the two largest economies in the world.

It is estimated that, if the agreement is successful, the free trade area would improve competitiveness, create jobs and generate billions in trade for the two economic areas. This is vital during a time of lagging global economic growth.

Combined together the economies of the US and EU account for over 54% of world GDP in terms of value and 40% in terms of purchasing power. Increased trade would also lead to a greater exchange of both human and intellectual capital. This would re-invigorate the trans-Atlantic ties that underpin that elusive idiom of the “West”.

Domestically, the proposed trade agreement has huge implications for the UK’s relationship with both the EU and US. If successful, the free trade area would mortally wound the eurosceptic movement.

British eurosceptics rue the perceived Byzantine tentacles of EU bureaucracy and instead advocate closer ties with the more economically liberal and culturally similar US.  Whilst ideologically supportive of a European single market, they question the worth of suffering a multitude of EU regulations for the dubious benefits of a free trade area with hemorrhaging European economies.

However, leaving the EU will mean being outside the proposed EU/US trade area. Considering the complexity and length of negotiations, there will be no opportunity for the UK to leave the EU and then enter the EU/US trade area as an equal third party. The EU/US free trade area would be a carrot that should not be given up.

Economics aside, abandoning the EU/US trade pact would be an absolute rejection of British foreign policy over the past 70 years. We have consistently seen ourselves at the main bridge between the US and Europe and our geo-political aims have focused on forging closer trans-Atlantic ties. A US presence in Europe assures both our security and our prosperity. It is the bedrock of the UK’s international relations.

Bizarrely, eurosceptics trumpet the foreign policy goal of closer US relations as the reason to leave the EU. They have ignored what America seeks from the “Special Relationship”. The Obama administration has been quite clear that an assertive UK in a strong Europe is what is most useful to the US. They desire an integrated Europe that can be a useful ally, and the UK’s role inside Europe is vital to achieving this.

The referendum proposed by David Cameron will allow the British public to fully engage with the pros and cons of EU membership. As John Major iterated in his backing of Cameron in a speech at Chatham House yesterday, "It will be healthy to let the electorate re-endorse our membership, or pull us out altogether. At present, we are drifting towards – and possibly through – the European exit.”

This is why the launch this week of European Mainstream, by pro-Euro Conservative MPs such as Robert Buckland and Laura Sandys, is a necessary reminder that there are many in the Conservative party who understand the importance of our relationship with the EU. This group supports the Prime Minister’s position on Europe; that both the UK and the EU are stronger with the UK inside Europe.

The proposed EU/US trade agreement is a timely reminder of the huge opportunities that the EU provides and will continue to provide. We have allowed the eurosceptics in politics and the media to dominate the debate for too long. The EU needs reform. I believe this as sincerely as many eurosceptics. But from the recent EU budget concessions to the enlarging of the EU and liberalising of the single market, the UK’s vision for the EU is bearing fruit.

The world is changing and Britain’s global interests must change with it. We are right to seek out new markets and partners and to review our existing relationships. But we must not be blind to the importance of our relationship with Europe. The British public deserves to know all the facts.  

It is time for pro-Europeans from across the political spectrum to announce themselves.

LATEST NEWS on Select Committee and 1922 elections

Nik Darlington 6.27pm

Results have been announced for the latest round of elections to House of Commons Select Committees and the Conservative party’s 1922 Committee.

The biggest congratulations go to Robert Buckland (MP for Swindon South and a vice-president of the TRG) who has been elected Secretary of the 1922. Robert will do very well and I wish him all the best.

Robin Walker, MP for Worcester, has been elected to the Business Committee, alongside Caroline Dinenage, MP for Gosport.

In other moves:

  • Angie Bray (Ealing Central) and Conor Burns (Bournemouth West) and Tracey Crouch (Chatham & Aylesford) are elected on to the Culture, Media & Sport Committee.
  • Brooks Newmark (Braintree), formerly in the Whips Office, is now a member of the Treasury Select Committee.
  • Karen Lumley (Redditch) takes a place on the Transport Committee at what is a critical juncture for British transport.
  • Meanwhile, there is some surprise that Simon Hart (Carmarthen West & South Pembrokeshire), a former head of the Countryside Alliance, did not make it on to the Defra Committee but election to the 1922 Executive will serve as good consolation.

Let’s make restorative justice a reality in 2012

Robert Buckland MP 2.53pm

Having worked for many years in the criminal justice system, prosecuting and defending in criminal cases, I am acutely aware that the trial process does not - and cannot - address the problems faced by victims of crime.

Since my election to Parliament in 2010, I have taken an increasing interest in restorative justice and how it can play a bigger role in the criminal justice system in the UK. Restorative justice can help turn lives around for the offenders and aid the healing process among victims of crime.

Restorative justice allows a victim of a crime and the offender to meet face-to-face, enabling both of them to play a part in finding a positive way forward. The practice, already being used across England and Wales in our schools, workplaces and in parts of the criminal justice system, can empower victims and communities to come to terms with their trauma and may also help to reduce crime by making offenders understand the impact of their actions.

In the immediate aftermath of the summer riots up and down the country last year, it was clear that far too many of those involved in the rioting and looting were young people.

In the debate held following the recall of Parliament, I encouraged the need for making those responsible come face to face up with the victims of their crimes and making them play their part in restoring the damage that they have done. I suggested this to be a good way to divert those young children from further involvement in the gang culture and crimes that we have seen.

I was very pleased to be part of an inspirational meeting held at the Pilgrim Centre in Swindon one Friday evening in November last year, organised by my local Quaker group.

Quakers are committed to working for peace and justice through nonviolent social change. Quakers seek to practice peace at all levels, whether being active in disarmament or promoting mediation among children.

It was an excellent evening and I was pleased to see that there are many local people in Swindon, in the Council, in schools, in church groups and the police who are committed to restorative justice. We all agreed that there were excellent examples of restorative justice methods being used in Swindon by the police and the Youth Offending Team, and that more work should be done to spread its use.

In the House of Commons, I asked Nick Herbert MP, Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice, about the steps the Government is taking to increase the use of restorative justice. I took this opportunity to raise awareness of the effective use of restorative justice procedures in Swindon by both the youth offending team and the police, particularly in the sentencing process and as an alternative to prosecution.

The Government has specific plans to support the invaluable work being done locally. The Minister assured me of the Government’s commitment to delivering more restorative justice across the system. The Minister agreed with me about the value of the work in Swindon in not only providing enhanced victim satisfaction, as victims are otherwise too often an afterthought in the process, but also in reducing reoffending rates.

Last month, I met Lizzie Nelson from the Restorative Justice Council. The work of the Metropolitan Police and Greater Manchester Police was highlighted; they have been doing some useful restorative justice work in response to the riots.

Greater Manchester Police as a Force is very pro-active in the use of restorative justice. In November 2011 they resolved over 600 crimes using these methods. While the restorative justice work has been slower than anticipated and the Force have not been able to resolve as many cases as they would have liked given this method, there is tentative progress being made, with one offender having agreed to a conference and another using a ‘shuttle method’ with a second offender. This can only help both the victims and also the offenders face up to the severity of the crimes committed.

The Government is considering how they can increase capacity to enable local areas to provide more effective responses to crime and disorder. Funded by the Ministry of Justice and implemented by the Restorative Justice Council (RJC), the Government has also recently introduced a register that lists all qualified practitioners of restorative justice - a process where offenders meet their victims and hear about the pain they have caused.

The Government will also be piloting new Neighbourhood Justice Panels, where local residents, properly trained and with advice and support, will be able to bring victims and wrongdoers together to deal with local problems in a way that gives them a real say in the outcomes for their communities. I am delighted to say that Swindon will be one of the pilot areas.

The great thing about restorative justice is that victims are never forced to go through the restorative justice process. The wish to meet the offender has to be led by the victims themselves. Currently many victims of crime who want to meet and confront their offender have to fight very hard against entrenched practices in some of the agencies that purport to offer welfare. I am keen for Swindon to be used as a beacon for restorative justice practices and am pleased that the Swindon Youth Offending Team and the Neighbourhood Team are already well engaged in these practices.

I believe that momentum is starting to build around restorative justice issues. Between November 2011 and February 2012, there was media coverage of restorative justice issues that almost reached 40 million people. An ICM poll, commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust, showed that 88 per cent of the public felt that a restorative approach was an appropriate response to the UK riots. Books such as Belinda Hopkins’ The Restorative Classroom show how thinking on restorative practice in schools can make a difference.

In conclusion, it is about all of us, you and me, and how as a society we work together to tackle the problems and conflicts that we face. Let’s make this vision more of a reality in 2012.

Robert Buckland was elected MP for South Swindon in May 2010.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertBuckland

The Big Society: Nod to Tory tradition or blow for modernity?

Robert Buckland MP 7.39am

Much is being made of the impact of the Prime Minister’s ‘Big Society’ initiative on politics generally. Of equal importance is the position that Mr Cameron’s flagship policy has within the Conservative party itself.

One of the consequences of the Tories’ extraordinary ability to evolve through good times and bad is a certain amnesia about the party’s history. For those who suggest that the ‘Big Society’ represents a departure from Tory tradition, there are plenty of others who recall that its spirit has been part of our party for generations.

It was a Tory government that realised in the 1870s that the basis of a decent society was proper public sanitation and better housing. Twentieth century Conservatives forged a modern education system, built record numbers of houses and understood the delicate balance between the individual and the state. At a local level, our volunteers who continue to run local associations, as they have done for decades, were and are hugely active in the charitable voluntary sector. In many ways, therefore, the ‘Big Society’ is a helpful reminder of a glorious past.

Yet there is much to the new set of policies that represents a break with the immediate past for what used to be called “the natural party of government”. For most of the past thirty years, Conservatism has been defined - particularly by its critics - as being about free market economics more than anything else. It had become increasingly clear to those of us who wanted Our Party to return to Government that in order for this to happen, the free market monopoly view of Conservatism had to be challenged. The change has not resulted in a rejection of the free market but an acceptance that more is needed in order to deal with the deep seated problems that beset our society.

Almost from the beginning of his leadership, David Cameron has been advocating this approach. The phrase “social responsibility” was used to define an approach that encouraged people to become more involved in their communities, and which aimed to break down the artificial divide between state provision and that of the voluntary sector.

At the heart of David Cameron’s philosophy is a firm belief that local people and local communities are best placed to make decisions that directly affect their lives. This approach underpins the Localism Bill, for example. Other changes, such as payment by results in criminal justice, will take longer to have an effect but they are no less radical for this.

There is no blueprint or five year plan for the Big Society, which makes it rather difficult to describe from a PR point of view. However, I take some comfort from this difficulty. The very fact that the Big Society is ‘unspinnable’ makes it all the more authentic.

Not only does the Big Society represent a blend between valued traditions and 21st century politics, it is also the clearest indication that the Conservative party has emerged, blinking into the sunlight, from a period of political stagnation into a period of vibrant innovation.

Robert Buckland is the Conservative MP for South Swindon, having been elected in May 2010

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