Saturday, 25 September 2010

The coalition is working

This week marks the start of the political conference season kicking off with the Lib Dems in Liverpool. I recently met the Political Editor of a major national newspaper who informed me that he was attending the Lib Dem conference for the first time ever and the same is true for many others too.

For the first time in almost a century, the Lib Dems are part of the government and what happens at their conference is of significance. Journalists who, just a few years ago, would have scoffed about the Lib Dems and their resolutions to ban goldfish and the like, this year take the party far more seriously and will be there in many cases for the first time in their life.

The advent of coalition government has created its challenges for both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems. As a Conservative, I firmly believe that we should renegotiate our relationship with the EU and scrap the Human Rights Act. My views on these things have not changed but the new coalition government has had to compromise and delay such policies for the time being.

But I am also conscious that, for the Liberal Democrats, there have been compromises too. Some of the traditional support for the Lib Dems in Cornwall comes from voters on the left of the political spectrum and there will be some nervousness about the priority the new Liberal Conservative coalition has placed on getting to grips with the budget deficit. But I think this judgement will be proved right in the end and, in a few years time, people will look back and realise that the action being taken today was necessary.

I think a Liberal-Conservative coalition is what the country voted for and certainly what Cornwall voted for. Although there was no outright winner on election night, there were some clear messages from voters. People wanted Gordon Brown and the Labour Party out. But they were not willing to give David Cameron full control. What they actually wanted was David Cameron as Prime Minister but working together with a third party and that is what they got. It’s proof that our electoral system is capable of delivering the will of the people and one of the reasons why I will be protecting our current voting system in any referendum.

In Cornwall, well over 80 percent of voters supported either the Conservatives or Lib Dems. Now we must work together to deliver for our duchy in a way that has not been possible for years. It is undoubtedly awkward for all the Cornish MPs to suddenly work together having just come through tough election campaigns against one another, but I detect that the will is there. There has been a gradual warming in relations between the Liberals and Conservatives and a clear sense of common purpose on many fronts such as water charges. Above all, it is what the voters asked us to do.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Big Society

What is the Big Society? It is the idea that David Cameron has put at the heart of his agenda but critics say they don't understand what it means and that the public don't get it either.

In a nutshell, it is about getting more people to do more for their community. Why is it that in some cases brilliant ideas and successful charities apparently spring from nowhere and grow whereas in others no amount of government help seems able break the cycle of social breakdown?

The answer is that in virtually every single case, successful community groups start with just one single person who initiates action and takes a stand. They soon find that they are not alone and that there are other like minded people in their community who will lend a hand and support their lead. Then it grows further. When other people see that it is possible to make a difference and that things can change, they get involved too and so there is a snowball effect and the result is a stronger society.

But if government intervenes too much and has an "initiative" to try to deal with every problem, then people retreat from their responsibilities to their community. An attitude can develop which says it’s the government's job to make things happen. People start to think they can't make a difference anymore. That has been the story of the last twenty years and we need to reverse the trend.

There are some great examples of community action here in Cornwall. From youth groups like Searchlight in Redruth to social projects that provide work for former offenders or help the long term unemployed back in to work.

One way to help such groups grow lies in smarter procurement by the public sector. There is nothing new about “outsourcing” work, but, in the past, too much money has been hoovered up by huge companies such as Serco and Capita who want as much money for as little work as possible. Imagine if we could change that so that small and local social enterprises who give something back to the community were awarded those contracts instead?

A few weeks ago I visited the Foyer at Carn Brea. It takes young people who have had a hard start in life and creates a community where they live in the same block of flats and support one another. As part of their presentation Shaun, one of the residents, read a poem. Another resident, Sophie, had discovered it while doing some research on the internet. It was called the Power of One and included the lines:

“One smile begins a friendship. One candle wipes out darkness. One laugh will conquer gloom. One step must start each journey. One life can make the difference.”

This is the essence of the Big Society and, whatever the critics might say, people like Shaun and Sophie understand it.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Cornwall is a duchy, not just an ordinary county

Parliament returned this week, much earlier than usual after changes to cut the length of the summer recess that MPs used to have in the past.

They say that turkeys don't vote for Christmas but in a separate move last Monday MPs did exactly that by voting through legislation that will cut the number of MPs sitting in parliament by almost 10 percent.

I think that's right. There are going to be some very difficult decisions to be made on public sector spending in the months ahead and I think MPs need to lead by example and be the first to cut their own numbers. We cannot expect other people in the public sector to take job cuts but then protect our own positions and so I supported the Bill.

The legislation also aims to make our electoral system more proportionate by moving towards equal sized constituencies. At the moment, there is too much variation in the size of constituencies with those in the North and Scotland generally being smaller than other parts of the country. The effect of this anomaly is that a vote cast in Scotland currently counts for more than a vote cast in Cornwall. That's not fair and it needs to change so that voters in Cornwall are given an equal voice in how our country is governed.

There will be a lot of debate in the months ahead about the prospect of a parliamentary seat that straddles the Devon and Cornwall border. I have always been clear that Cornwall is not just an ordinary county, we are a duchy and have always had special status so I think we should try to find a way to avoid a cross border constituency if possible.

The final thing agreed in this week’s Bill was that there should be a national referendum to decide whether or not to change our voting system. I have always supported the use of referendums because I think they are good for our democracy. Having a national debate on a single issue can be a powerful antidote to the growing trend of personality politics in General Elections and it also forces politicians from all sides of the political spectrum to work together on an issue where they have a shared conviction.

But in that debate, I will be campaigning for a no vote to protect our democracy. Our current one person, one vote system, where you mark a cross in the box next to the candidate you want, is simple and clear and has stood the test of time.

The so called "Alternative Vote" method is a multiple voting system where you write lots of numbers on the ballot paper and where some people get more votes than others, depending on how they order their votes. I don't think that's fair and it does nothing to help smaller parties like Mebyon Kernow.

It promises to be an interesting debate!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Does university matter?

I left school at 15. It’s a statement that makes me sound older than I am but it’s true. Although I had a very good set of O Level results, I decided I wanted to go into the family business. But I also did a part time Business Studies course at Cornwall College so that, when I changed my mind and decided I wanted to go in to higher education after all, I had a qualification that allowed me to take that step.

This year’s A level results are now in but there are thousands of students who are going to struggle to get to university because of a shortage of places. In a final bizarre twist, the last government set a target of getting 50 percent of young people to university but then fined universities who expanded to meet that challenge.

Does education matter? It is the title of a book by Alison Wolf and at a time when students are expected to pay towards their university education it has become a salient question to ask. There is evidence that a good school age education counts for much more than university. That was certainly my own personal experience.

That is not to take away the importance of our academic institutions. They are centres of excellence, have a vital role in rebalancing our economy towards new industries and are absolutely the right choice for many young people to continue their studies, especially those who want to enter the professions.

But they are not the only choice. I think there is a danger that by over-emphasising university education you can create the impression that those who don't go to university are somehow a failure. They are not and we need those young people to understand that there are other routes to success in life.

I recently met a group of teenagers who had had a tough start but were getting their lives back together. I told them that some of the most successful people in the country suffered adversity early on in their lives and that, with the right support, they could turn that experience to their advantage.

Last week I visited a project in Redruth called Real Base Training. It aims to take teenagers who are falling behind at school or college and inspire them with the idea that they could set up their own business and be their own boss. They have a cluster of new businesses which are given support and mentoring at the centre. Sometimes if you take a young teenager and put them in a working environment their confidence blossoms in a way that is simply not possible in a formal learning environment and so you can help them on the road to success.

Someone once told me that you don't have to be clever to be smart. He was right and we need to encourage approaches which show young people how to use their talents.