Strategic Defence and Security Review
Rebecca Harris (Castle Point, Conservative)
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak this evening.
I have the great privilege of representing the wonderful people of Castle Point. As everyone here should know, it is a borough constituency on the north side of the Thames in Essex. The seat takes its name from two of its most prominent landmarks: the ruins of Hadleigh castle, which overlook the Thames, and Canvey Point, the easternmost point of Canvey Island-a true island, below sea level, which fortunately enjoys some of the lowest levels of rainfall in the country. Hon. Members will know that the castle is the subject of a beautiful and haunting painting by John Constable. Indeed, I am often confused by people who say they are going to visit Constable country and then mistakenly head off for Suffolk instead. I very much look forward to being able to show off the beauty of my constituency when Hadleigh downs hosts the 2012 Olympic mountain biking event.
Castle Point has a rich history. Canvey Island hosted an early Roman settlement and was drained by Dutch engineers in the 17th century, and the Saxons fought off the Vikings at the battle of Benfleet. Castle Point's recent political history has been no less interesting. My immediate predecessor was Dr Bob Spink, who was an extremely active Member of the House and an enthusiastic presenter of petitions. In recent years he was associated with several parties, including a short fling with the UK Independence party as its only ever MP, however briefly. He ultimately fought the election leading his own Independent Save Our Green Belt party-an important issue in Castle Point. I have met many people whom he has helped over the years of his service, and he was a very hard-working Member of Parliament. I wish him the best for the future.
However, no Castle Point MP should talk about the constituency without paying proper tribute to the late Lord Braine of Wheatley, who served the area with great distinction for 43 years and was Father of the House until his elevation to another place. Sir Bernard is still remembered with real affection, and at my first meeting with a local campaign leader I was presented with a 30-year-old copy of Hansard recording his marathon three-and-a-half-hour filibuster as he strove to talk out a railway Bill that would have made more likely the construction of two oil refineries on west Canvey marshes. The development would have blighted the whole borough to this day.
Like a lot of men, Sir Bernard seemed to have no great difficulty talking for three and a half hours without pause. That said, he was helped by supportive colleagues on the Back Benches intervening to complain, after only two hours, that he was pursuing his argument in too hurried and superficial a way, and requesting that he please give more background and context in order for them to get a better grasp of his arguments. I am happy to say that Sir Bernard and the tenacious local residents won the day. The refineries were never built, and one of my first public engagements as a Member of Parliament was attending the formal opening of a superb new Royal Society for the Protection of Birds reserve where one of those refineries would have stood.
Bernard showed how an experienced and determined Member might use this Chamber to deliver real benefits to the community that he represented, benefits that are well remembered nearly 40 years on-quite a lesson for a new Member like myself. He understood the Castle Point community and saw it grow rapidly as people moved there from London. In doing so, they sought to bring up their families in the safe, green, pleasant villages of Benfleet, Thundersley, Hadleigh, Canvey Island and Daws Heath. That housing development, though, is balanced by the presence of ancient woodlands, heathland, marshes and glens and vital green belt, the preservation of which is hugely important to the local people, who want to ensure that Castle Point remains a peaceful and attractive place to live-a subject I will return to in future debates. As Members may guess, I and my constituents are delighted at the abolition of regional housing targets.
Despite its rapid growth, Castle Point has maintained an exceptionally strong, even old-fashioned, sense of community-something that its people have preserved, and that I as their MP wish to help them preserve. Castle Point residents are very proud of their community, and also fiercely proud of our country-even, it seems, of our national football team. Above all, they are hugely proud of our armed forces and will line the streets for them on Saturday for Armed Forces day. I am delighted that this year, the 1st Battalion the Royal Anglians, better known as the Vikings, will be joining the parade.
The Vikings recruit in and around my constituency and are just back from a third tour of duty in Afghanistan, where they have fought bravely, helping to provide security to the Afghan people and to us in the UK in turn. They lost five of their number and many more were injured. I had the privilege of receiving last week a briefing at county hall from their senior officers on their achievements during the mission, and was greatly encouraged by the progress they have made on reconstruction and development, on winning over the local community leaders, and on investment in the training of the Afghan national army and police. More than 10,000 Essex people turned out last week to give them a proper Essex welcome, demonstrating their heartfelt support for those who bravely put their lives at risk on our behalf.
However, that support has not stopped those same people from asking searching questions about the mission and equipment, and about the care we give to the injured and their relatives, both in mind and body. Some ask why we are in those locations, what we realistically hope to achieve, and whether all the money and personnel could be better deployed in protecting our domestic security in a more direct way. Like many others, my constituents have experienced terrorism first hand and its changing character over the years. The IRA sought to detonate an oil storage tank on Canvey in the '70s, and many of my constituents work in London and were affected by 7/7.
I hope the defence review gives us a proper chance to look hard at our priorities as we consider how best to make our country secure again, with the background of a diverse and rapidly changing security threat, and the realities of our economic circumstances. My briefing from the Vikings showed clearly the principle that security can be won and maintained only through the combination of military and policing action, negotiation and diplomacy, and aid and investment, and that one should not undermine or work against the other. I hope that the strategic defence and security review, while determining the future shape of our defence and armed forces, will also give the British public confidence that when our brave men and women are sent to war on our behalf, it is for this country's security interests.
I shall close by saying what a great pride I have in representing the people of Castle Point. I offer total commitment to serving them in this House, to repay the trust they have placed in me by sending me here.