As part of our continuing series of interviews with local politicians, I recently met with Caroline Nokes, serving her first time as the MP for Romsey & Southampton North. Caroline’s constituency is relatively large, encompassing the villages to the South and West of Romsey, some northern wards of Southampton and stretches as far as Longparish, Barton Stacey and the Wallops.
After narrowly missing out on the seat in 2005 by a tiny 125 votes, Caroline gained the seat for the Conservatives in 2010 with a majority of 4,156. Since then she has worked tirelessly in Parliament for her constituents.
With politicians facing a barrage of criticism in the media and with voter turnout often very low, I asked Caroline why she had decided to work in politics. Caroline explained that in the late 1980’s, when she was “busy failing A-level economics”, her father, at the time a lecturer in politics, now the leader of Hampshire County Council, suggested that she study a politics A-level in the evening at a Southampton college to attain the grades she needed to go to university. She passed, despite only studying for a year, and tells me that she also ended up passing her economics A-level, too. She then went to university where she read politics with a group of very left-leaning peers, having no particularly ideology of her own at the time. She obtained her degree and left university not knowing what she was going to do; however, fate then took over and her father was elected as an MEP a month later so she went to work for him. “I’m not one of those people who decided aged 10 that they wanted to be Prime Minister,” she tells me, instead she found politics somewhat addictive, something Caroline says no one should underestimate. “The whole process of elections is addictive and I guess I just got hooked,” she said, but continues to say that she enjoys helping people, pointing to an email she received a day earlier, from a man who had asked her to help with his replacement boiler and who wrote to show his gratitude, as well as a family who were able to get an emergency replacement passport for their daughter thanks to Caroline’s help who wrote to say that she had saved their family holiday.
Earlier in the week we had asked our followers on Facebook to suggest some questions that they would like to ask an MP. I selected some and asked Caroline a question posted by a few people regarding youth unemployment and the availability of apprenticeships. “The Government has been pushing hard to increase the numbers of apprentices and the numbers are rising,” she says, with numbers of new apprentices in the constituency doubling in the last few years. “We’ve got some great examples in the south of very big companies taking on apprentices, but I think the next push really has to be to encourage small businesses to take on apprentices and to have the courage to do that.” She acknowledges that some employers are nervous about the economy and of employing more people, but says that apprenticeships are a great way for young people to get on the career ladder.
Caroline praises the new nursing apprenticeships that are now available, but says this should go further to encompass other professions such as medicine, law and accountancy. “I can see with medicine that you’re in a high risk profession, but with the correct supervision, with massive amounts of the academic side as well, I don’t see any reason why not.”
Regarding the suggestion by one reader of compulsory military service for young unemployed people not in education, Caroline, who has been part of the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, a programme to give parliamentarians an experience of the military, said there was a reluctance among senior figures in the military to have conscripts rather than volunteers.She uses the flooding in Romsey as a recent example where the army and navy were brought in to protect areas severely affected by the floods. “All of the army personnel were reservists who were supposed to be off on manoeuvres on a training weekend and those coaches of reservists were diverted to Romsey to lay sandbags, so I think [the reserves] are a brilliant route to go down.” Caroline also points to the National Citizen Service being among a number of ways for young people to get experience serving others, along with the various cadets schemes in the area.
Another reader asked about the UK’s involvement in overseas conflicts with the Ukraine-Russia crisis being the most recent example. “I look at the situation in Crimea and see this is a guy [Putin] who is clearly determined to put a massive footprint on the world, and his statements about Ukraine and Crimea get more and more outlandish; it’s an incredibly sensitive situation. I just look at the Orange Revolution, where they thought that democracy was heading their way, but then Yulia Tymoshenko was hauled off to prison. I’m a firm believer in democracy, and I think that anything we can do diplomatically that can support Ukraine getting back to a solid footing in charge of it’s own borders and it’s own destiny is great, but do I think that we should be even contemplating any military involvement? No.”
Asked how her constituents had benefited from having a Conservative MP, Caroline was honest in that things may have been different locally, had there not have a been a coalition government, but says she thinks it has been largely good for the Conservatives and very good for the Liberal Democrats. “They’ve had the chance to influence policy to a level that they would never previously have done,” but she says that having a Chancellor, who has got a grip on the deficit, and putting benefit changes in place, which have been broadly popular among a majority of constituents, are positive impacts of a Conservative government. However, she says she is disappointed that that idea of ‘Localism’, which she hoped would give local residents a bigger say over development, has not been so effective.
Caroline says that as a local MP she’s always happy to help those cases where benefit changes may have been detrimental to those who have been in need. She sites a number of occasions where she has sent letters of support on behalf of constituents who’s cases have been appealed for genuine reasons. She uses sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease as one example of people who have been declared ‘fit for work’ by ATOS, the company the Department for Work and Pentions use to assess some benefits claimants, despite suffering from a degenerative disease, which often rules out the possibility of going back to work.
She also says that some of the language used by others regarding benefit claimants being ‘scroungers’ has been ‘Ill thought out’ and goes on to say, “and shows a complete lack of understanding of people’s situation, nobody wants anyone to be in a position where they have to use food banks and I think it’s really important with regards to the spare room subsidy that people who have a disabled child or who are on dialysis, or for whatever reason need to have an additional room, that their cases need to be looked at properly and individually.”
Caroline then goes on to make an a suggestion that would likely prove very popular, teaching ‘financial literacy’ in schools, so young people can ‘understand how to budget and how to feed a household’. “Some of the education changes with regards to cooking are really important,” she says. “It’s all well and good for children to leave school with 5 A-C GCSE’s, but if they don’t know how to feed themselves or have absolutely no idea how to pay the household bills then you can see where the problems are instantly going to arise.”
I asked Caroline about her vote against the same sex marriage bill in Parliament and the reasons behind her decision, she explained that an overwhelming majority of the people who had written to her were against, for whatever reason, gay marriage, over 500 people were of this view, where as only 30 had decided to write to her supporting the bill. She explain that she therefore voted the way her constituents, or at least those who had written to her, has asked her to.
This was a very interesting response. Over the years I have asked a number of MPs from all parties about what influences their votes and the majority have always said this was a personal decision, based on the evidence they had at the time. Caroline, however, was the first to tell me that she largely takes into account the views of her constituents in a truly democratic way. There are times, she tells me, when she must go with a different view, for example with the recent vote on smoking in cars with children, she voted for the bill despite some constituents petitioning her to vote against. She also tells me that she, along with two Conservative colleagues, rebelled against the Government by voting against a bill to sell off the public forestry estate. “I spent 10 years as the leisure portfolio holder on Test Valley Borough Council, and I know how much money we spent on the forests that we owned.” She continued saying that she didn’t believe that community trusts and volunteer groups would be able to take over the forestry commission work and had the biggest influx of correspondence from constituents on this subject than on any other, including from her mother.
Finally I asked Caroline if she is concerned by the possible threat from UKIP in her constituency. “Of course,” she said, “but I welcome democracy and I welcome having a reasoned and intelligent debate about the issues. I think the Conservatives have been very clear; I’ve consistently voted for a referendum, even before it was government policy. I signed a motion back in early 2012 calling for a referendum on the EU, but I genuinely believe that it’s only a Conservative government that is going to deliver a referendum and every vote that UKIP take off me means that a referendum is less likely.”
It’s obvious that Caroline works hard as a backbench MP and genuinely represents the views of the majority of her constituents. I look forward to speaking to Caroline again in what looks set to be an interesting few years in politics within the Test Valley.