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!