Thursday, 18 July 2019

Respecting Devolution and votes of conscience

From time to time, Parliament has to wrestle with Bills or motions which are a cocktail of competing constitutional principles, policy issues and matters of conscience. It can leave MPs in a difficult position trying to balance conflicts between different principles they might hold.
Last week was one of those occasions. A Bill was laid before Parliament to legislate to allow a simple extension of the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, to avoid the need for direct rule from Westminster for a little longer and to try to provide some additional space and time for delicate talks on re-establishing a power sharing executive. Two years ago there was a breakdown in relations between the DUP and Sinn Fein and the latter have so far refused to rejoin an executive meaning everything is suspended. No one wants a reversion back to the tension and violence that existed in Northern Ireland before so, difficult and frustrating though it is, it was right to give some more time to allow these delicate talks to continue.
When the government presented their simple Bill, they suddenly found that it was assailed with amendments from multiple directions by MPs pushing different agendas. Firstly, there were a group of MPs who wanted to hijack the Bill to insert new clauses that would try to frustrate Brexit and block the referendum result from three years ago. Secondly, there were others who put in amendments regarding abortion and also same sex marriage which would have driven a coach and horses through our constitutional settlement and imposed a Westminster view in Northern Ireland when these have always been free vote issues of consciousness for devolved assemblies in Scotland and Northern Ireland to decide.
I took the view that we should first and foremost uphold our constitutional settlement so opposed the attempts to impose a Westminster view on Northern Ireland. If we wanted to take the position that the lack of an executive in Northern Ireland meant important issues were not being addressed and this was intolerable, well then the correct course of action would be to be upfront about that, impose direct rule and then legislate for Northern Ireland on everything. However, this Bill was about doing the reverse. Bolting on all sorts of impositions on contentious issues that are a matter of conscience make the fragile talks more difficult than they already are.
I would not change the current settlement we have on same sex marriage in England and Wales but I was not willing to impose our view on Northern Ireland. On abortion, I think there are some changes that Northern Ireland could make but I would also support changes in England and Wales. I take the view that when it comes to an unwanted pregnancy, we ought to be requiring a decision to be made much earlier in a pregnancy and probably within twelve weeks. However, there are also tragic cases where a foetus is diagnosed with a rare condition meaning they would never survive but could suffer pain. It is an agonising decision for parents in such a situation and, in those sorts of cases, which are limited in number, I would always allow a termination at the current maximum of 24 weeks. Abortion is a very difficult ethical issue and I don’t agree with the way it is sometimes presented as a “women’s rights” issue. It is actually about balancing very difficult moral dilemmas.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

Tin Mining Subsidence Bill 2019


This part of Cornwall has a unique mining heritage. Redruth was once one of the wealthiest towns in the country and we exported mining expertise across the globe with our ancestors travelling as far afield as Cape Town, Real Del Monte in Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and Wisconsin in the United States. Inventors such as Richard Trevithick and William Murdoch put Cornwall on the map as a leading centre for industry and innovation and we are lucky to have such a rich legacy that has been left to us.
Today that legacy means that we have World Heritage Site status and the many old engine houses around our towns are iconic. However, there is another legacy which periodically causes major problems to some residents. The ground beneath the whole Camborne, Pool and Redruth area is like a Swiss cheese with mine workings going back centuries. Many of the more recent features were mapped and are known about but others that go back further are sometimes not mapped. 
Over time, I have had a steady stream of constituents contact me with problems of unexpected subsidence that leaves them with huge personal costs.  Sometimes people have had a mining survey completed when they purchased their house which gives a clean bill of health but when they come to sell and move on, they find that potential purchases using a different mining security company offer a different, adverse opinion which leaves them stuck. 
For many property owners, they are also hamstrung by the fact that many insurers will not include mining subsidence in their cover unless it actually threatens the house itself. On other occasions certain sites have experienced local subsidence which upon investigation have identified untreated old workings. For instance, at Clijah Croft in Redruth, localised depressions have led to the identification of 17 areas on the site which require attention due to old mine workings being present. Whilst at Grenville Gardens in Camborne, untreated old mine works have led to the council having to excavate the area to stabilise the ground before relaying it all.
In a bid to tackle the problems presented by these legacies, this week I presented a Bill to Parliament that would introduce new financial assistance to help home owners in Cornwall whose properties are affected by subsidence damage as a result of historic tin mining features. My Bill would amend the Coal Mining Subsidence Act of1991 in order to create an additional obligation on the Coal Authority to offer financial and other assistance to help home owners whose property has been affected by subsidence damage due to tin mining. Currently, those living in former coal mining areas whose properties are affected by subsidence damage are entitled to financial support to put right any damage. Due to an oversight in the drafting of the original legislation, similarly affected communities in former tin mining areas like Camborne and Redruth are denied the same sort of compensation or assistance.
Cornwall’s tin mining industry left an enormous legacy to the world in terms of the wealth it created for our country during the industrial revolution, the spirit of invention and innovation that went with it and the mining expertise that was subsequently taken around the world. But for many, the threat of subsidence damage to their property from historic mining features is a constant worry and it is time to finally address this gap in the law so that Cornwall is treated equally and receives the support it requires. 

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Religious Slaughter

This week I led a debate in parliament about reforming the law around the non-stun slaughter of farm animals. The way we treat animals raised in captivity for food is a hallmark of a civilised society. We have a special responsibility to spare farm animals any unnecessary stress or suffering. Since 1875, we have used technology to ensure that animals are stunned prior to slaughter. Using either a captive bolt in cattle or electric stunning, it is possible to render the animal immediately unconscious and insensible to pain prior to slaughter. However, there has also always been what supposed to be a very narrow exemption for Muslims or Jews with an orthodox view who feel they need meat from animals that were not stunned.
Our laws have evolved over the years but have not changed substantively since 1995. We have always allowed a conditional derogation for Jewish and Muslim communities. The key feature is a so called stand still time of 20 seconds on sheep and 30 seconds on cattle during which the animal should not be moved to reduce stress. Non-stun slaughter is only supposed to be allowed on the basis of religious need but this requirement is not enforceable in practice. The FSA have published alarming statistics showing that 25% of all sheep are now slaughtered without prior stunning representing a drift back towards more conservative cultural interpretations of religious faith. We are being left behind by other developed nations on this matter. In Australia and New Zealand, non-stun slaughter is not permitted. In many European countries there is either a requirement that there should be an immediate post cut stun where a derogation is used or in some cases a prohibition on non-stun slaughter.
Free votes in parliament are a wonderful thing. When political parties step back from taking a position and allow their own members to form their own opinion on an issue of conscience, it can be liberating for both the party and their representatives. In my view it is time for every political party to agree that the issue of religious slaughter should also become a free vote issue so that progress can be made.
When considering reform, we should first ask whether the derogations we currently allow are strictly religious or whether they actually represent an accommodation of a cultural interpretation of religious need? Both the Muslim and Jewish faiths have a clear religious conviction against the consumption of pork, which should obviously be respected. However, when it comes to the issue of stunning, the religious need is less clear.
In the case of Halal production, the important feature is that there is a Muslim blessing at the point of slaughter. Many communities in the UK are content with the use of stunning and until a few years ago, we had got to a position where around 75% of Halal meat was stunned. Most Muslim countries like Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are more concerned about the contamination of porcine DNA through shared use of machinery than they are about whether an animal was stunned.
If we want modernise the regulations, we could consider an immediate post cut stun on cattle to recognise their unique physiology. Secondly, we could increase the minimum stand still time on sheep to, say, 45 seconds to remove the incentive to mainstream the non-stun slaughter of sheep. We could also strengthen the requirements on chickens to purposefully check birds for signs of consciousness before the next stage of production. Finally, we could introduce strict quotas setting out the number of animals permitted to be slaughtered without stunning thereby giving effect to this longstanding requirement in UK law.
Not everyone will agree with the ideas that I have set out, but I would love to have the debate in Parliament under refreshing, free vote conditions where government would be liberated of the task and Parliament could chart a course forward.

Thursday, 27 June 2019

Native and Rare British Breeds

My family have farmed in the Gwinear area for over 150 years and this week Trevaskis Farm hosted the launch of a new project to help better understand the genetics behind one of our country’s rarest breeds of pig, the British Lop, which is native to Cornwall.
We have records that show that my Great, Great Great Grandfather first kept this pig and the breed was formally recognised in 1920. The family have maintained a herd of British Lops ever since and they can still be found at Trevaskis Farm today. In fact, the pig is so rare that about a third of the total national population are to be found at Trevaskis.
Genetic diversity has always been the key that enables life on earth to adapt to new challenges. When any species in its natural environment faces a threat through disease pressure, the solution is always to be found through a gene that had been tucked away somewhere but which has particular traits that suddenly come into their own and spread. This, in turn, creates the resilience on which life depends. It is because of this quite fundamental rule of life that protecting and maintaining biodiversity is of such great importance to the planet and why we should also strive to preserve the genetic diversity that is held within the many rare breeds and native breeds of farm animal. Once a particular gene or line becomes extinct, it is gone for good.
The Rare Breeds Survival Trust is a national charity that leads the work to preserve and rekindle some of our rarest breeds of farm animal and, with the support of a grant from the Gerald Fallowes Trust, it has teamed up with my brother and the British Lop Pig Society to support a new initiative that will improve understanding of the breed. There will be steps to better understand the unique DNA behind the British Lop pig and which genes truly differentiate it from the rest. There will then be a number of initiatives to try to establish a gene bank to protect this crucial genetics.
The new Agriculture Bill that will replace the Common Agricultural policy (once we finally get free of the EU) has set out the idea of financial support and incentives for the delivery of “public goods” like genetic diversity. I have been pressing the government to develop its approach to supporting rare breeds and native breeds in more detail. This week I have tabled amendments to the Bill to make clear that supporting genetic diversity is one of the purposes of the Bill and I have also secured a meeting at Defra with representatives of our native breeds and rare breeds so that this vital area of work can be discussed.

Thursday, 20 June 2019

The Conservative Party Leadership Election – An Update

By the time you read this we will know who the final two candidates are for the position of Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister as various voting rounds progress in Westminster. Leadership elections can be volatile and unpredictable. Front runners often lose momentum or come unstuck at later stages as doubts set in and others can come from nowhere. The parliamentary stage of the contest is run under the system called “exhaustive ballot” where you keep voting and eliminate one candidate from the bottom at each round until there are only two left standing who then go out to campaign amongst the membership. As I write this, there are still five candidates left in the race but by the end of Thursday there will be two. 
Boris Johnson has a clear lead but has avoided public appearances as much as he can. His managers are worried that if he does interviews or appears in public he may make a gaffe or say something wrong so they are playing it safe and sitting tight while back room operators twist people’s arms to try to get their support. Although playing it safe is a natural human reaction when you are in the lead, it’s an approach that can sometimes store up future problems because if things do unravel they can unravel quickly. 
Rory Stewart has been the candidate in this contest who has surprised people and gained more support than expected. However, at the BBC hustings this week, it was clear that he was simply going to persevere with the same identical plan that Theresa May has flogged to death over the last nine months, so there will be scepticism that he has properly thought through a way forward and he would probably become a divisive figure if he failed to commit to delivering Brexit properly and honouring the referendum result. 
I am supporting and campaigning for Michael Gove because these are serious times and we need a serious Prime Minister who can get things done. Our next Prime Minister must deliver the biggest and most complex peacetime negotiation our country has every faced and must do that against the backdrop of a hung parliament and a divided country. They must immediately reverse the low morale and division in the Conservative Party caused by two years of drift. They must grab this sorry situation by the scruff of the neck and fix it. Time will be an enemy. There will be no summer break for whoever takes over, just hard graft. 
It is not enough for the next leader to “respect” the 2016 referendum result - we have tried that and it didn’t work. The next leader must respect it, believe in it and, crucially, have the wherewithal to deliver it. I am backing Michael Gove because I think he is ready to lead, ready to unite our party and ready to deliver for the British people.
Michael Gove exercises judgement, has an eye for detail and he has the conviction to deliver Brexit. He led the Leave Campaign which was one of the most successful campaigns in recent history. Working alongside him in Defra I saw how hard he applied himself to ensure that the opportunities opened up by the leave vote were not squandered. He energised the department on his arrival injecting momentum and pace in everything he did. 
This is a very close contest and by the time you read this you will know whether he has made it to the final run off. 

Thursday, 13 June 2019

Murdoch Day

After the success of the Royal Cornwall Show last week, despite the rain on Friday, I’m looking forward to attending Murdoch Day in Redruth this Weekend. There is always an excellent procession in the morning, involving many local schools, dance acts and bands. 
It will be good to have the opportunity to catch up with the team at Murdoch House – the former home of William Murdoch, the inventor and engineer who was one of the pioneers of steam power development in Cornwall and also famously invented the first ever gas light using piped gas.
Works at the new Kresen Kernow archive are almost complete and the building looks fantastic. There have been occasional setbacks because it is a difficult site but this project is a great boost for our town. Recently I have been working with local councillors and also the owner of the remainder of the site to ensure that the we get the further development due to take place around the archive centre right. There had been some concerns about some of the proposed flats and the possible impact of this on Kresen Kernow so it’s important that all sides involved work together to get the details right. 
I campaigned hard to ensure that Redruth was selected as the location for the Archive Centre. Our town is home to the world wide Cornish diaspora because of the deep roots we have in the history of mining around the world. These are exciting times for Redruth as we see the key historic site of the brewery brought back into use to celebrate our history. Redruth is not just the industrial heart of Cornwall, it is also the home town for a great many of the seven million people around the world whose ancestors left Cornwall in the late 19th century to build the new world. Around a quarter of all the people who left Cornwall during this period came from the Redruth area and they travelled as far afield as Cape Town, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and Wisconsin in the Unites States. Press cuttings from that time underline the human and social cost of this mass migration across the world in search of work, with many instances of families separated for the rest of their lives and with wives and young families often left behind.
William Murdoch was a pioneer and like many of the other great inventors that have graced Cornwall, it is important that we take the time to celebrate their achievements. We should always try and make more of our heritage. Camborne, Redruth and Hayle together make up the heart of Cornwall’s industrial heritage with most of the key attractions and old engine houses based here. It is days like this where we can take a step back and truly appreciate their greatness.

Thursday, 6 June 2019

D-Day Landings 75th Anniversary

This week, the 45th President of the United States, Donald Trump, visited the UK on an official state visit. Not everyone agrees with Donald Trump’s politics but people like Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan, the London Mayor, were wrong to boycott the state banquet hosted by the Queen. These occasions go way beyond the politics of the day. The United States is our closest ally and the main reasons that the visit is taking place is to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings where Britain, America and Canada stood together to liberate Europe. 
D-Day was and still remains the largest combined land, air and naval operation in history. The invasion was conducted in two main phases – an airborne assault and amphibious landings. Shortly after midnight on 6th June, over 18,000 Allied paratroopers were dropped into the invasion area to provide tactical support for infantry divisions on the beaches. Following this, on the morning of June 6th some 156,000 British, American and Canadian troops launched from the sea and air on to French soil across 50 miles of Normandy coastline. The force included 5,300 ships and craft, 1,500 tanks and 12,000 planes. 
The D-Day landings were the first essential step for the Allied forces to liberate north-west Europe from German occupation. By sunset there were an estimated 10,000 casualties and more than 4,400 confirmed dead. The success of the D-Day landings lay in the fact that in the three months after the landings, the northern part of France would be freed, and the invasion force would be preparing to enter Germany, where they would meet up with Soviet forces moving in from the East. 
We owe so much to the many men who gave their lives so that we may enjoy all that we do today. In recognition of their sacrifice, there will be an official service in Portsmouth which the Prime Minister and Donald Trump will attend jointly to mark the 75th anniversary. There will also be other services in Normandy and across France, in which veterans from the D-Day landings will return to the beaches that they fought on, on that fateful day. 
As part of the events to mark this anniversary, the Culture Secretary also recently announced that a number of WW2 landmarks have been officially listed as protected as a memorial for future generations. Six replica landing craft, nine sunken tanks, two armoured bulldozers and parts of Mulberry harbours in Dorset, Devon and West Sussex will be listed. These structures were integral to the largescale preparations that took place along the coastline of Devon and Dorset. 
This year’s anniversary serves as a reminder of the bonds and special relationship that we have with our allies like the United States. As we face the new challenges of the 21st century, the anniversary of D-Day reminds us all of all that our countries have achieved together, and whilst the world has changed, we are forever mindful of the sacrifices of those who gave so much for peace.