Thursday, 9 October 2014

KEY NEW POLICIES

As growth returns to the economy one of the main priorities must be to ensure that we make work pay by helping those in work and on low incomes. Last week's announcement by the Prime Minister that tax thresholds will be raised so that those on minimum wage will be taken out of tax altogether will be particularly welcome here in Cornwall.

At the moment almost one and a half million people receive the minimum wage in the country which is set at £6.50 per hour and in our area a high proportion of working people receive it. We want to make sure work pays and that it is always better to be in work then on benefits. This policy does exactly that and is a real boost to help the lowest paid and encourage people into work.

By raising the threshold to £12,500, over one million extra of the lowest paid people will be taken out of tax and thirty million more given a tax cut. This tax cut builds on an earlier announcement by George Osborne to look at raising the minimum wage to £7 per hour. Whilst a balance has to be struck and small businesses also need help in order to take on more people, this could be a welcome boost to get wages more in line with inflation and help people struggling with costs in Cornwall.

I was also pleased to see a clear commitment by the Prime Minister to scrap the Human Rights Act. While I agree with Human Rights I have long argued that the European Court is having unintended consequences and needs to be sorted out. As part of the coalition agreement, the Lib Dems insisted that British courts should play second fiddle to the European Court but after the election, a Conservative government would now sort the issue out.

The ECHR was established after the last war with the aim of getting internationally agreed principles and it is a list of perfectly laudable but broad aims which most people would support. The trouble is that since then a succession of clever barristers have made ever more creative arguments citing human rights that has made a mockery of the original idea. I think we need a British Bill of Rights which explains to the Courts what the ECHR means within Britain. This is what will happen with a Conservative government elected next year and it will make clear when human rights laws should apply, that rights should be balanced with responsibilities and it will stop terrorists and other serious foreign criminals using human rights to prevent deportation.

With the party conference season now over, the battle lines for the next General Election are drawn. It is certainly going to be close.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Starting gun fired on the next General Election

The last party conference season before a General Election always sees the temperature of debate rise and the parties start to set out their main objectives which will define the key message they seek to deliver the electorate over the next nine months. What everyone can agree is that we are heading towards a very close election where the result is very uncertain.

Every party has its work cut out over the next eight months. Ed Miliband has to try to persuade people that he would be able to do the job of Prime Minister. We Conservatives need to persuade people that they should stick with our long term plan to get the country back on its feet and see through what has already been started. The Liberal Democrats need to persuade voters that there is still a role for a third party and a need for coalition politics.

The week in Birmingham started with the announcement that one of our MPs had decided to defect to UKIP. I used to be a member of UKIP in 1999 but came the other way to join the Conservatives. One of the reasons I left UKIP is that I thought they always undermined the causes they claimed to believe in. Ten years ago they were a hindrance to those of us who wanted to bring together a broad coalition of people who wanted to Keep the pound but stay in the single market for trade. Today, the only way to get a referendum on our future in the EU is to have a majority Conservative government but UKIP increase the chances of Ed Miliband winning the election.

However, as the week progressed there were some important new announcements around cutting taxes on pensions and lowering the cap on benefits for those who could work so that work always pays. I think this is important because if we want to help people out of poverty we need to help them into work and it can never be right that some people living on benefits can have more income that those who work hard and do the right thing. A lot has been achieved in terms of sorting out the benefits system over the last few years and, as the economy has recovered and grown, many people who had been left on the scrap heap for years have now had the support they need to get a job.

As with every summer, I have spent the last few months out on the door step meeting local residents to discuss their concerns and understand their priorities. We have made some important progress in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle with some major projects to rejuvenate our towns underway and new industries starting to set up. My priority now is to make sure that young people locally have the skills and the confidence to take up these new opportunities.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Personal Debt Conference

Earlier this week I organised a mini conference in Redruth with local charities and other groups to discuss proposals to tackle the problems caused by personal debt. We had a number of key speakers from successful projects to discuss the scale of the problem and also outline solutions.

There is now good news on the economy with unemployment falling rapidly and we now have the fastest rate of growth in any major industrialised country. But one of the challenges is making sure everyone benefits. It is why the reforms to the benefits system so that work pays are so important and also why we need intensive support to help those who have been out of work for a long time get their confidence back.

We also need to recognise the demoralising affect that personal debt can have on those on the bottom rung and it isn’t just those on benefits. Many people who work hard also have debt problems and shouldn't be overlooked. It can start with a one off bill like a repair to the car, a bill from the Child Support Agency or an unexpected tax demand but it can all end up with court costs and thuggish bailiffs at the door adding huge cost and stress. Some people turn to loan sharks or payday loan companies who seem to offer a quick fix but actually end up compounding the problem. People feel despair and can't see light at the end of the tunnel because the fees and financial demands on them completely outstrip their income.

There is good work being done to help. The Citizens Advice Bureau regularly offers debt advice to those at their wits end. In extreme cases they can help people apply to the court for a Debt Relief Order to remove some of the burden. Earlier this summer I met the local organiser for Christians Against Poverty to discuss their work locally. CAP was founded by someone who had worked in finance but then suffered his own debt problems. Volunteers with experience visit families at home and help them put together a budget.

In 2012 the Government set up the Money Advice Service with the key objective to encourage people to better manage their money and prevent them from getting into unmanageable levels of debt. The MAS offers free and impartial information on money matters and they can be contacted online, by telephone or even face-to-face.

Finally, I think we need to develop a more enlightened approach to credit control when it comes to utility companies and local authorities. Rather than sending reminder letters and then instructing a bailiff to chase the debt, it would be better by far to spend money on debt advisers instead so that we help people get out of the hole they are in rather than hit them when they are down.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

GOOSEBERRY BUSH NURSERY

Last week I attended the formal opening of a new extension at the Gooseberry Bush Nursery at Rosemellin. It has enabled them to expand their provision for two year old toddlers, open a cafe for young parents to meet and support one another, create more room for their breakfast club for children at both the nursery and Rosemellin School as well as provide additional space for the Children's Centre. They also had some new gardens and outdoor adventure play space.

I first met Gill Smith, the founder of the nursery, about three years ago and became persuaded of the overwhelming importance of early years support along the lines provided by Gooseberry Bush and others like it. We know that the first three years of a child's life are the most formative. Unless they learn to communicate, to share, to explore and to socialise with other children then they will often start school behind their peers and struggle to catch up for their rest of their childhood.

We have some amazing primary and secondary schools in the Camborne, Redruth and Hayle areas but there has been a worrying trend. Virtually all head teachers in primary schools tell me that over the last twenty years or so they have seen a persistent rise in the number of children in need of speech and language therapy or other forms of intervention when they start in reception class.

The reasons for this growing problem are no doubt varied, but those like Gill Smith who understand these things point to problems caused by modern technology as being at least one of the contributing factors because it has changed the way some parents engage with their babies. In the past, prams would face back towards the mother so that a toddler had visual contact with their parents and there could be eye contact and plenty of verbal engagement. Now, it is most common for prams to face forwards so there is less such contact and parents are often on their mobile phones. These days, when a baby smiles for the first time, rather than see that engagement reciprocated, he or she is just as likely to see a camera phone put in front of them so parents can capture the moment.

The government has recently extended free childcare for low income families with two year old children in recognition of the fact the younger we offer support, the greater the impact. We also need to do more to help parents before children reach two and consider extending the support for toddlers beyond fifteen hours per week. Things like breakfast clubs also have a role to play by making sure children are eating well and teaching them to sit around a table and socialise and, yes, hold a knife and fork properly

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Scottish Independence

I think it would be an absolute tragedy if Scotland were to leave the UK and break up our country but the referendum which will decide the future of our nation is now looking closer than ever with just a week to go. I have been to Scotland several times in recent months in my role as farming and fisheries minister to make the case that we are stronger together.

The United Kingdom is one of the most successful political and economic unions in history. We have so much rich diversity on our islands but a shared purpose which is what makes Britain great. Here in Cornwall, many of us would probably describe ourselves as Cornish before English but first and foremost, we regard ourselves as British.

It is not the first time Scotland has taken us all to the brink. In 1979, there was a referendum that was close. In 1997, Tony Blair thought that by having a new parliament in Scotland with new powers, there could be a new settlement that would put the debate to rest. However, as it turns out, Alex Salmond and the SNP used the new settlement as a means to an end and to foster new grievances and try to drive a wedge through society and divide our community of nations. But once the separatists won 70 percent of seats in the last Scottish election, there was little choice but to settle the argument through yet another referendum.

There is now one week to go to win that argument that we are better together. For those who want to divorce Scotland from the rest of the UK, there are so many questions they have not answered. What currency will they have? One thing we have learned from the euro fiasco is that you cannot have a single currency without a single government and a single tax system. Scotland does well financially by being part of the UK and it would have to slash public spending if it had to pay its own way. Finally, Scottish industry benefits from being part of the UK with a comprehensive network of international embassies to support exporters. For instance, Scotch whisky is one of the country's greatest export success stories but it is heavily dependent on all the help is receives in hundreds of countries across the world from British embassies and consular staff.

If we can get a no vote and keep the country together, it will be important to review the way the union works. It is not just about so called "devo-max" where new powers are given to the Scottish parliament. It would be an opportunity to think about governance of the whole United Kingdom so that we can get the balance right between having a national parliament that has the power to act decisively where required but with other powers and responsibilities moved locally. But if Scotland votes for outright divorce, it would be an incredibly sad moment in our island history.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Lanyon Farm

The recent planning approval on appeal for a massive 70 acre solar farm at Gwinear near Hayle has once again highlighted the need to strengthen the position of local communities against inappropriate development.

I am a realist and understand that there are no easy answers or magic bullets when it comes to our future energy supply. In reality, we are probably going to require a mixture of different sources. Onshore wind is the most mature of all renewable energy technologies and is certainly far cheaper than offshore wind, but developments must be done with local communities, not to them. When it comes to solar panels, I have always supported their use on the roofs of buildings. Last year I visited a project in Pool where a whole estate have installed solar panels on their roofs and the residents are benefiting from free energy and some income from their investment.

However, I think we are now seeing far too many field scale solar farms being built. Not only are they often a serious blight on the countryside but they also take important agricultural land out of production. In the next few decades food security is going to become an increasingly important issue with a growing world population and demand for food growing. That is why we should protect the best agricultural land. The parish of Gwinear has some of the best land in Cornwall and the farm where the giant solar farm development is planned is rated as grade 3a - which means it is some of the best arable land in the county.

In the context of Cornwall, a third concern with field scale solar farms is that they undermine the potential for other more promising renewable sources of energy like wave power. Wave Hub at Hayle is really taking shape with many developers now showing interest. However, one of the main reasons they are choosing Cornwall over Scotland is that we currently have surplus capacity on our electricity grid which means they do not have to wait and hope for hugely expensive new investment in the grid infrastructure to come along. However, every time a solar farm is built, we not only sacrifice land but we remove surplus capacity from the grid.

Last year the government set out new guidance which sought to increase the weighting given to the loss of agricultural land and also to strengthen the consideration given to heritage assets. To be fair to Cornwall Council, they have abided by the new practice guidance and have used it as a basis to refuse permission in a number of cases. However, some developers have sought to get around the new rules by advancing sham arguments that suggest they might still be able to farm the land. Any farmer knows that such suggestions are pie in the sky. Crops need sunlight to grow and if fields are smothered in solar panels, there is no light left for crop production.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

UNEMPLOYMENT DOWN

UNEMPLOYMENT DOWN

One of my priorities since being elected has been to bring new industry to Camborne, Redruth and Hayle and to get unemployment down. Last week I met local staff at the Job Centre in Redruth for one of my regular meetings to discuss progress.

The news is really encouraging. Over the last twelve months the job market has been transformed with strong growth now returning. The fall in unemployment has accelerated and this year has seen the biggest drop in unemployment since records began. The number of people claiming Job Seekers Allowance in Camborne and Redruth, once running into thousands, is now down to the hundreds and has fallen by a third since the same time last year. Nationally, there are now 1.8 million more people in work than there were when Labour left office.

The most encouraging thing is that youth unemployment has fallen dramatically. One of the most depressing things about the first decade of this century is that, even though there was growth in the economy, young people struggled to get work and, all too often, we're left languishing on benefits. Youth unemployment was actually going up under the last Labour government even when unemployment in the wider economy was going down. Work is learnt at a young age and a major priority for this government was to create opportunities for young people.

When the various work experience schemes were introduced a couple of years ago to tackle youth unemployment, there were some who denounced them but they have been a huge success. In hundreds of cases, when young people have been given the chance to have a few weeks work experience, they have learnt new skills. They have also often been so impressive that employers have gone out of their way to find paid positions for them. In addition to the work experience schemes, the government has also had grant schemes in place to encourage employers to offer apprenticeships and other paid work to young people.

The focus now is on wage progression. Now that we have managed to get so many people back to work, often for the first time in their lives, we want to see them progress to higher pay initially and ultimately move on to develop a pathway to a career.

Worklessness is at the root of poverty which is why it had to be tackled. It is not just about the money because those who work have to live to a tight budget too. It is about self-respect, a sense of purpose and being part of a team. For all these reasons, work can be the cure to many other social problems and it is why shaking up the benefits system so that work always pays was the right thing to do.