Martin Salter - working hard for Reading West
Martin at Westminster in 1999
Martin at Westminster in 1999

Martin Salter Interview

martinsalter.com talked to Martin about his time as MP in May 2007 when he had served Reading West for 10 years.

You have been MP for Reading West for 10 years now. What do you think you have achieved?

Ultimately it is for others to judge what I might have achieved, but we’ve clearly had some successes.

We’ve won many campaigns on important local issues working alongside local people, such as: preventing the disposal of lock keeper’s cottages along the Thames, helping save the children’s charity “ABC to Read” and preventing the closure of community homes for people suffering from mental illness.

Protecting the Kennet Meadows from the developers was significant because it has been such a long running issue. We recently persuaded Ministers to remove the area as a potential development zone in the new South East Plan in order to protect the environment and reduce the risk of flooding in Reading.

Securing a change in the law to clamp down on violent internet pornography was very rewarding. A lot of people had told me I was wasting my time and you can’t control the internet and so on. But that’s not a reason for not trying. 

Then there’s the political ‘bread and butter’,  if you like: Winning substantially more funding for schools, hospitals, and transport schemes in Reading including the new Royal Berkshire Hospital, Prospect Park Hospital, the John Madejski Academy, and the new Reading Station.

Your have a reputation for hard work. Is that what has got the results?

Like I say, ultimately it is for others to judge.  If I have established a reputation as a hard-working and effective constituency MP who speaks up for the people he represents then that will do me.

Individually, I have taken up thousands of cases on behalf of constituents and it is always gratifying to be able to help people with their problems. I can also point to the new Royal Berkshire and Prospect Park hospitals; extra police and street wardens for Reading; more money for schools, pensioners and drug treatment programmes and planning protection for the Kennet Meadows as real achievements. I’ve always tried to be a strong, principled and independent voice for my constituents and to keep in touch all year round. I guess this must have struck a chord with local people as they re-elected me in 2001 with the second biggest swing in the country of any MP and again in 2005. I am one of only 6 Labour MPs with a majority still greater than the 1997 landslide result.

How did you come to live in Reading?

I wanted to buy a house and be near my beloved River Kennet and in 1980 Reading was much cheaper than West London. I ended up living in Elgar Road with the river flowing past my back garden – it was a good time!

What did you do for a living before you became an MP?

I worked as the Regional Development Co-ordinator for a Housing Co-op for a number of years, but before that I did a number of jobs: lorry driving, scaffolding and builder’s labourer, dustman, cargo handling at Heathrow and then got the job of Co-ordinator at Reading Centre for the Unemployed.

What brought you into local politics?

I’ve always been politically involved and was an active trade unionist. Back in the early 80s, I was a playscheme worker and ran a campaign with local parents to reinstate the holiday playscheme budget, which the then Tory controlled Council had cut. Our success in that campaign made me decide to stand for the Council and I was elected in May 1984 for Park Ward. Labour took control of the Council in 1986 and I went on to Chair the Leisure Committee and spent 9 years as a Deputy Leader before standing down in 1996 to fight Reading West for Labour.

Did you always have an ambition to become an MP?

Not really – I have always been the sort of person who has strong opinions and speaks out when I see something that’s wrong or needs putting right. I suppose after 12 years as a Reading councillor, with 9 as Deputy Leader of the Council, running for Parliament was the obvious next step.

What have been the high points for you since you were first elected in 1997?

In my first term it was a huge privilege to be able to play a part in the Northern Ireland peace process and the campaign for the Good Friday Agreement. I spent two fascinating years on the Northern Ireland Select Committee at a historic time.

After my re-election in 2001 I was appointed Parliamentary Spokesman for Angling and Deputy Leader of Labour’s Campaign Team in Parliament. In 2005 I enjoyed a brief period in the lowest rank of government as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Schools Minister Jacqui Smith but resigned in order to campaign against the Education White Paper. I spent 2½ years representing Labour MPs on Labour’s Parliamentary Committee, which involved weekly meetings with the Prime Minister. More recently I have become an active member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, which covers many of my main areas of interest.

Here in Reading one of the high points was taking on the might of Lloyds TSB and persuading them to re-instate cashiers in their banks in Tilehurst, Theale and the town centre, after a vigorous campaign that I took all the way to Westminster. It was also gratifying to help save important areas of Reading’s open space from the developers. We were successful in saving the Tilehurst Allotments in Kentwood Hill and, as I mentioned earlier, Kennet Water Meadows in Coley, Southcote and Calcot, despite attempts by the Prudential (supported by the CPRE), to build on the floodplain.

  

More recently I was pleased to have helped to save a local charity, which helps young children to read, and to have prevented the closure of Acorn House at Prospect Park Hospital, which would have forced vulnerable mentally ill patients out into the community. Perhaps the most satisfying moment was achieving the change in the law on violent internet pornography following a four year campaign with Reading mum Liz Longhurst, whose daughter Jane was brutally murdered by a man obsessed with extreme porn sites featuring torture, rape and necrophilia.

And the low points?

The awful Paddington train crash in October 1999 after which I met with survivors and relatives who had lost loved ones. It was harrowing and at times I struggled to find the right words to say. I also had sleepless nights as we approached the parliamentary votes on whether to go to war in Iraq. It’s a horrible thing to be asked to send young men and women to kill or be killed and anyone who doesn’t take these things seriously isn’t fit to hold public office.

You’ve not always toed the party line. Do you think your rebellions over the privatisation of Air Traffic Control and the War in Iraq have finished off your chances of being made a government minister?

Probably but I don’t really care. My constituents sent me to Parliament to do a job of work on their behalf, not to further my own career or line my own pocket. I don’t particularly like voting against my own party and I will only do it if I feel especially strongly about an issue. I made a promise to my constituents on Air Traffic Control, which was non-negotiable. Whilst I don’t mourn the fall of the brutal dictators like Saddam Hussein, and welcome the successful elections in Iraq, this was still a war fought for the wrong reasons, which has made the world a more dangerous place and caused thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Ultimately I was given a role as Labour’s Vice-chair on Environment matters in 2007 and I’ve been happy to get on with that. I’ve also been a spokesman on fishing and other country sports and that’s been enjoyable. 

How do you get on with colleagues?

I get on with most people.

In Parliament I’ve worked across the political divide on issues such as the Jane Longhurst Campaign against violent Internet Pornography and re-settlement rights for Ghurkha soldiers. I also have an excellent working relationship with most of the councillors in my constituency. However, I’ve got no time for those politicians who are lazy, incompetent or only in it for themselves and the status it brings. I’m not particularly popular, however, with those MPs who have outside business interests and second jobs, as I sponsored a bill to end MPs moonlighting. I believe that representing 70,000 people is a full time job.

How do you relax and unwind?

I go fishing. I’m a fanatical Reading Football Club supporter and I love getting away in my camper van with my wife Natalie. I’ve also discovered, somewhat late in life, the joys of growing vegetables. Trouble is, I don’t get much time to do any of these things as much as I would like.