Sunday, 27 June 2010

Why I will be campaigning against AV

The notion of giving each and every adult in Britain an equal vote in the election of our national government has been the cornerstone of democratic government since the days of the suffragettes. It became the core principle of a free society and it has stood the test of time. In the last century Britain has had governments of every hue, coalition governments and even governments of national unity. So in the forthcoming referendum I will be defending our democracy against those who want to meddle with our voting system.

Under our current system, you mark an ‘X’ by the name of the candidate you want. Everyone’s vote counts for the same. Under the system they call “AV” some people get more votes than others. It is a complex multiple voting system with unpredictable results. Some people get two or three votes counted while others only get one.

At the moment, voters weigh up the pros and cons of each candidate and then make a decision about what they want. There are numerous factors that affect their decision. The views of the candidate, the policies of the party they are standing for, people’s experiences of those parties in the past and their chances of success in a given seat.

Under a multiple voting system, it is all about political tactics. The name of the game is to read the runes and vote tactically to try to keep out the person you hate the most. I don’t think that’s a good basis on which to run an election. The evidence from countries like Australia is that the Alternative Vote system leads to more negative campaigning and more personal attacks in politics. We don’t want that in this country.

In private company, the political activists who say they want an Alternative Vote system admit that it’s just a “foot in the door” and their real aim is to have a continental style PR system where the political parties call the shots and decide who represent them. I don’t agree with PR myself because I think it cuts voters out of decision making, but I do understand the argument for it (namely that is allows representation for minority parties like the Greens). I admire those who are honest enough to say what they really want. But what I cannot accept is the trickery of pretending you want one thing when you actually want to sneak through something else on the sly.

The AV system doesn’t even help smaller parties. If you are a Lib Dem and decided to vote Mebyon Kernow as your second preference, then that vote would not get counted. But if you were BNP and voted Labour as your second preference, both your votes would count. That can’t be right but at least we will have the chance to vote ‘no’ to this system in a referendum.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

DEFRA Select Committee

This year, parliament changed the way that it chooses MPs to serve on Select Committees. Members used to be appointed by the whips offices of the main parties but this time round all MPs got the chance to vote members on. With some 30 Select Committees in total, it made for a lot of ballot papers!

Select Committees were introduced thirty years to improve the accountability of parliament. Although made up of MPs, they are cross party and independent of the government of the day and the political parties. They can take expert evidence to really try to get to the bottom of issues and their recommendations can have an impact on government policy.

I managed to get elected on to the Environment Food and Rural Affairs Committee. It is a subject close to my heart. I spent the first nine years of my working life in the farming industry in Cornwall and I studied horticulture at agricultural college. Britain's self sufficiency in food has declined sharply in the last 12 years and I think we need to reverse that trend. Food production should not just be about economics because it also has an impact on the environment and implications for animal welfare standards. I think we should be producing our food as close as possible to the communities that consume it, and that is why we need to make issues like animal welfare a much more important dimension of trade negotiations.

But DEFRA is also the department responsible for water policy. Water bills in the South West are the highest in the country because 3 percent of the population are expected to carry the burden of maintaining 30 percent of our coastline. I have long said that we need to address this unfairness but that it is time to move on from talking about the problem to implementing a solution.

There were three ideas highlighted in the Walker Review into water charges. One was to introduce a seasonal tariff in the South West so that bills are higher in the summer but lower in the winter. I don't think that is the right answer because it could be seen as a tax on tourism which is a vital industry in Cornwall.

The second was to offer specific help to those on lower incomes, but, while the cost of that could be spread nationally, it wouldn't help everyone here in the South West.

The final option, which is the best in my view, is to charge an annual tariff to other water companies to help deal with the cost of maintaining our coastline. This could equate to a small increase of say 13p per month on water bills in other parts of the country but would allow a significant reduction of around fifty pounds a year here in the South West.

All we need to do now is persuade the rest of the country that they should accept such a policy!

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Making cuts fair

The one thing that was always expected regardless of who won this year's election was a cut in public spending. You can't spend money you don't have for very long and over the last year the government spent some £170 billion more than it received in taxes.

Many government departments are now having to review their spending and look again at the projects they are supporting. Last week the Department for Transport announced they could not confirm their support for any transport projects until they know how much money they will have this autumn. This could affect some projects here in Cornwall.

I think the most important thing we need to see in next week’s emergency Budget is fairness. As the Chancellor, George Osborne has said before, we are all in it together and must share the pain of any cuts. Last week, Vince Cable expressed the view that the North should be spared some cuts in spending, putting more pressure on other regions. Such an approach would be completely unfair in my view and would not be the right way to maintain public support for the difficult decisions ahead.

I hope that many important projects in Cornwall will still be able to go ahead, albeit in some cases by cutting their cloth to fit the new financial reality and I am going to be making their case over the summer.

Cornwall College was a victim of the fiasco last year where funding for a rebuild of the college was suddenly withdrawn. The new coalition has found a way to make some money available to colleges caught out in the disaster but in return has asked them to revisit their plans and find ways of saving money. I think this is the sort of solution we are likely to see more of.

Our schools in this part of Cornwall need capital investment and have been overlooked over the last decade, and I will be making their case too. But many schools say they would be only too happy to spend less on the architects and consultants who proved to be such a costly component of the old "Building Schools for the Future" programme run by the last government. When money is tight we should spend what we have on schools and children's education rather than architects and consultants.

And when it comes to other development projects we have a strong case too. In some instances there is match funding from the EU. In others the projects form an important element in the regeneration of our towns.

Finally when it comes to making savings, I think it is clear where government should start. We need to cut back the 900 or so quangos and government agencies that currently exist. Many duplicate the work of each other and have grown out of control. In difficult times, it is where we should start.

Thursday, 10 June 2010

Royal Cornwall Show

Today I will be up early in the morning to make my way to the Royal Cornwall Showground in time for a breakfast meeting with local farmers.

There before me will be the many volunteer stewards who keep the show on the road. I remember when I was growing up, we would often come up to the show with my father who was a steward on one of the gates. It often meant a 5am start and made for a long day.

Some agricultural shows have suffered in recent years but the Royal Cornwall remains one of the strongest. I think you can put that down to the strength of community spirit down here in Cornwall. As well as being a major agricultural show it is an important meeting place where we bump in to old friends that we haven't seen since last year.

One of the things I hope people will see from the new coalition government is a better understanding of farming and rural communities than we have seen in recent years.

We used to have the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But the last Government removed any mention of farming from the title. You couldn’t escape the feeling that they thought farming was an old industry that didn’t really fit in with their “new” agenda.

I was brought up at Trevaskis Farm and spent the first nine years of my working life in the fields. I think the issue of how and where our food is produced runs far deeper than just economics. If we want to protect our environment, have healthy food and raise animal welfare standards then we must produce food as close as possible to the communities that consume it. We should not be traipsing livestock over long distances or flying vegetables half way round the world.

Our self sufficiency in food has fallen sharply in the last decade and "food security" has started to be recognised as a concern. We need to reverse that and support local producers.

There are things that government can do to help. First, we need to curtail the power of supermarkets who all too often abuse their position in anti- competitive practices which undermine producers. So we need a powerful new watchdog that brings them into line.

Next, the least government can do is buy British food itself. So we need to make sure that government departments buy produce that comes up to British standards.

And finally, we need to make sure consumers know what they are buying so we need to improve labelling to get rid of misleading claims that food is British when in some cases it has only been processed in Britain.

It’s a start but as someone whose heart is still in the countryside, I want to find out what else needs to be done and where better to start than the Royal Cornwall Show.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Bringing new prosperity through enterprise

A couple of months ago, I attended a night of entertainment organised by the Holman Climax Choir at Camborne School to celebrate the history of the iconic firm that played a huge role in shaping Camborne. The event was attended by over 300 people and included some fantastic old footage and photographs.

Here in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle we take a lot of pride in our heritage and history. But since the loss of mining and iconic firms like Holman Brothers in Camborne and J&F Pool in Hayle, this part of Cornwall has struggled to regain its footing. How can we get our local economy back on its feet?

There were initiatives as long ago the 80’s under the last Conservative Government to encourage businesses to locate here and create jobs. Some firms, like the US engineering firm Case, left again once the benefits that tempted them down expired.

But there were other success stories which have endured. Pall at Redruth is one of the firms that was attracted to Cornwall at that time and is still one of the largest employers in the area today and they have played an important role in helping us retain a strong skills base in precision engineering.

Building lasting prosperity depends on taking an international lead in new industries where our geographic location as a peninsula is an advantage rather than a disadvantage. For instance, when it comes to wave power, Cornwall is the place to be because we have a huge coastline, powerful waves and the engineering know-how to turn ideas into industry. And when it comes to the new creative industries like digital animation, distance is no longer a barrier. What matters is having the best talent in one place and high speed broadband connections to the rest of the world.

The building of the university at Tremough has been a significant step forward. The result has been some world leading academic work in marine energy and world leading courses in the creative industries. The hope has to be that the best talent in these new industries settles where it is being fostered.

The last decade has seen a focus on capital projects with the help of public funding. There are some important plans still taking shape, for instance the regeneration of Hayle Harbour, Wave Hub, the Heartlands project in Pool and the Redruth Action Plan.

But regeneration work can only be judged a genuine success once the conditions are right for private enterprise to take flight unsupported and bring real prosperity in its path. So we need more people to have a go and set up their own businesses. Ten years ago, the challenge was to get young people into university. As a result of the latest recession, the challenge now is getting them from university in to work. Many will decide to set up on their own and build a business. I hope they do and wish them luck.