Monday, 27 October 2014

END TO FARMING SUBSIDY FOR SOLAR

I have always said we need to be careful about losing good agricultural land to solar farms and earlier this week, as Farming Minister, I announced our plan to end the payment of farm subsidies on land occupied by solar farms. The new rules, which will come into force from January next year, mean that farmers who choose to use fields for solar panels will not be eligible for any of their "single farm payment" available through the Common Agricultural Policy on that particular piece of land.

I think this is good news for the country but particularly for Cornwall, where we have been especially blighted by these ugly solar developments. Last year alone, 67% of new solar developments could be found in the West Country and Cornwall planners have been inundated with applications from developers hoping to take advantage of energy subsidies. During my time as MP I have been contacted numerous times by residents opposed to these developments and I have supported their cases all the way to the Planning Inspectorate.

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. Farming is what our farms are for and it is what keeps our landscape beautiful but crucially it produces the food we need. It makes my heart sink to see row upon row of solar panels here in Cornwall where once there were fields of crops or grassland for livestock to graze.

Some developers have attempted to claim that farming can continue underneath solar panels but I think these are sham arguments which developers just advance to try to get around planning guidance. There is no doubt that land covered in solar panels is, for all intents and purposes, lost to agriculture. Crops need sunlight to grow and if fields are smothered in solar panels, there is no light left for crop production and it is not possible to get tractor access to manage the soil. In addition, when it comes to the idea of grazing sheep or other livestock, while developers talk this up, in reality they are concerned that livestock will damage their expensive panels. Many write into their agreements that farmers can't use the land themselves but that only the energy company's sheep can occupy the land. I don't know whether they think they have specially trained solar friendly sheep or something but none of it sounds very plausible.
We do need to diversify our energy supply and there could be a role for some solar panels, but on roofs not on prime agricultural land. Solar panels are best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops where they will not compromise the success of our agricultural industry and I hope that a more innovative approach along those lines could remove the threat to our Cornish landscape.

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.

CORNWALL'S FISHING INDUSTRY

Cornwall's fishing industry has always played an important part in our local economy and it has been great to have the opportunity as fisheries minister to try to secure a better and more secure future for our industry.

Earlier this week I attended the October EU fisheries Council which marked the start of a series of important negotiations culminating in the setting of annual quotas for fish stocks in December. The Common Fisheries Policy has long been regarded as synonymous with EU failure but last year we made an important breakthrough with a radical transformation in approach. Significant powers over fisheries management are to be returned to the national governments who have a shared interest in each individual fishery and there is a new discard ban to end the shameful practice of throwing perfectly good fish dead back into the water.

The UK led the way in securing the radical reform. The problem with the old CFP is that there were centralised quotas set by the EU for each species. But fish don't swim neatly apart from one another so fishermen targeting one fish could inadvertently catch another species for which they had no quota and the only option open to them at that point was to dump the fish back into the water.

Under the new system, the management plans for an individual water are developed multilaterally between the nations who have a shared interest in the water. There is a legally binding commitment to fish sustainably and to follow the scientific advice about the health of fish stocks. This is important for the future of the industry because if we hammer fish stocks that are in decline or over exploit our fish recourses we are only robbing fishermen of their future. Sometimes we do need to hold back and show restraint in order to safeguard the future of the industry.

Another feature of the reform is that there will be a ban on discarding healthy fish back into the sea. Instead, we will help Fishermen manage the realities of the marine environment allowing flexibilities between the quotas they have. So if a fisherman catches more haddock than he expected then rather than having to throw it overboard he can count it against quotas he has for other species like whiting or cod so that he can land the fish he has caught. He will also be able to borrow some quota from the following year if needed and there will be an uplift in the amount that he can catch to take account of the fact that fish are no longer being discarded.

The marine environment is incredibly complex and no man made system to manage it is ever going to be perfect. There are also still issues we need to resolve in terms of how we implement the new system. However, the new agreement on fisheries represents a major leap forward from what has gone before.

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.