Sunday, 30 January 2011

Back in the blogging saddle

Over Christmas, the blog column of the Cornishman criticised my blog as having less spontaneity than it once did and that most of what appeared was simply my weekly Cornishman column.

It's a fair cop. To be honest, this blog has had less attention over the last six months because there have been far bigger competing priorities like getting getting stuck in on hundreds of problems on behalf of local people and dealing with wave after wave of correspondence.

The time that I have had for writing has tended to all go on my weekly article for the West Briton and Cornishman which, let's face facts, has a few more readers than this blog. But we are starting to get on top of the workload and so I am going to try to make more regular blog postings too. Since I am currently stuck on a small train to Plymouth and my lap top battery has died, I am unable to draft any further surgery letters until I get back on a train at Totnes, so have a chance to make a start now from my BlackBerry.

I decided to have a blog rather than Twitter account because it gives you the space to develop an argument. I subscribe to the David Cameron school of thought when it comes to Twitter. I am also not a big fan of Facebook and use it very rarely, despite having an account of sorts. I think that people share far too much about themselves on Facebook and it undermines the genuine art of communication.

So for me, a Blog is a happy compromise and is my nod to the internet age. But we are about to arrive in Plymouth so that's it for this post!

Friday, 28 January 2011

Good parenting is the way to tackle poverty

I have always had a lot of time for the Labour MP Frank Field. We worked together on the campaign against the euro ten years ago and he has always been independent minded. That is why I was delighted when David Cameron put aside party differences and asked Frank to lead a report on ending child poverty and helping children from the most disadvantaged backgrounds to achieve their full potential.

Last week I attended a debate in parliament which aimed to explore this area in more detail. Tony Blair set a target to halve child poverty by 2010. There was a focus on redistributing wealth through the tax system which helped to get some of those people just below the poverty line to being just above the poverty line. However, the approach failed to tackle the root causes of poverty and disadvantage, the target was missed and those at the very bottom are still there.

If we are serious about breaking the cycle of disadvantage and serious about giving children from poorer backgrounds the best possible start in life then we need to tackle the causes of disadvantage, not just treat the symptoms. It also means taking a longer term approach.

Good parenting is the essential ingredient. Getting things right in the first five years is crucial. By the age of three, a toddler’s brain is already 80 percent formed and his or her experiences in those first few years will have influenced how their brain has grown and developed. The things that make a difference are a healthy pregnancy, a secure bonding between mother and child with plenty of love at home, clear boundaries and real attention to developing a child’s communication abilities through reading books and speaking to them.

Where this doesn’t happen, things go wrong. That is why the sorts of solutions put forward by Frank Field included refocusing government efforts on early years support. A lot of people say that they do not have enough help to prepare them for parenthood and the huge responsibility that carries. They would welcome more advice and help to become good parents, to establish a learning home environment for their baby and to have some support for childcare.

Councils have a role too by making full use of the voluntary groups and social enterprises out there in delivering their services. Last autumn, I visited Action for Children at Trevu Road in Camborne to discuss some of the fantastic work they do in this area, helping to support and advise families on how to become good parents.

A stitch in time saves nine and it is work like this that will really make a difference. While it won’t deliver overnight results, it is the right way to help those on the lowest rung of the ladder and we should make it happen.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Benefits of Regeneration

How do we make sure that proposals for regeneration actually help the local communities which are asked to support such plans? One of the problems in the last ten years is that development has been seen as something done to communities rather than with them.

This week, the government outlined a raft of policies to take power away from developers and central government and put control back in the hands of local people, where it belongs. This is a major step forward but there is something else we need to achieve. Wherever possible, construction projects should employ local staff and local contractors. We need communities to see and feel the economic benefits of regeneration.

Last Friday I visited Working Links, a job placement service based in Redruth. That morning, they had held a meeting to recruit fifty local people to begin work on the reconstruction of North Quay at Hayle harbour. ING have a target that 90 percent of the people working on the North Quay project should be local and live within a 30 mile radius. The work is being spearheaded by the construction company, Carillion. Despite being one of Britain’s biggest companies and having a global reach, Carillion have risen to the challenge and have made it their priority to recruit local builders. All credit to them for taking such a lead. We need others to follow. One critic of development in Camborne recently told me that Midas Homes rarely employed local people but instead sent in gangs from upcountry. That’s no good. Developers like Midas could learn a lesson or two from Carillion.

Which brings me to Hayle. This week there have been public meetings to weigh up the various options for a supermarket in the town. Big planning issues are always contentious. The easy thing for a politician to do is keep their head down. But the right thing to do is to exercise judgement and say what is in the best interests of the town.

That’s why I came out very clearly in favour of the ING proposal on South Quay at the end of last year. If we are going to have a supermarket in Hayle, then let’s at least locate it where it will bring new life in to the town rather than drain life away from the town. Let’s demand something in return from all these supermarkets and use their interest as an opportunity to repair the harbour and regenerate South Quay. Let’s demand something for the community and make plans for a new cinema in Hayle a reality. Let’s celebrate our heritage and bring the famous Goonvean Engine back to the town where it was made.

Some are suspicious of ING simply because it’s a Dutch bank. But if their recruitment policy for staff on North Quay is anything to go by, we should give them a chance.

Aiming to get lower water charges in the South West

One of the first things I did when elected in May was stand for election on parliament’s Select Committee on the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having spent the first ten years of my working life in the farming industry, I thought it was an area where I had something to offer.
DEFRA is also responsible for policy on water and just before Christmas, we published our first report which identified some of the current challenges in the water industry. The current high level of water charges is a contentious issue in Cornwall. Despite having some of the lowest average incomes in the country, our water bills are the highest. While people on meters generally enjoy lower bills, the average unmetered water bill in Cornwall is almost double the national average and this reflects the fact that just three percent of the population have to pay for the cost of maintaining 30 percent of our national coastline.

For many years people have talked about the problem, but the key with all things is to try to find a solution. There are two ways of addressing the problem. The proposal that works best for Cornwall is to add a small levy on the water bills of people in other parts of the country to deliver a significant reduction in all South West Water bills. The only problem with this is that it is not easy persuading MPs in other parts of the country that they should support such a move. There is also the counter argument put forward that it would be wrong for someone on a very low income in the north to subsidise the water bills of a wealthy second home owner who has retired in Cornwall.

The second option would be what is described as a “national social tariff” where you would have a national scheme targeted only at those on the lowest incomes. This would not help everyone in Cornwall but it would be better than nothing.

The idea that I have put forward is to have a mixture of the two. First it would address the affordability issue by only being targeted at those people who spend more than three percent of their household income in water. That would help around 70 percent of people in Cornwall, but only a small percentage elsewhere in the country. But secondly, you would address the issue of fairness by introducing a taper on the amount of discount offered which would be relative to the extent to which water bills in a given area varied against the national average. A place like Cornwall where bills are almost double the national average would get the full discount. Those areas where bills are perhaps just 10 percent above the average would get much less and those areas where water bills are below the average would not qualify at all.

It might just get wider support but there is more work to do.

Welfare Reform

For as long as I can remember, people have talked about the need to shake up the welfare system but governments have always ducked the difficult decisions. The culture of welfare dependency that has developed in recent decades is not only unfair on those who have to pay for it through their taxes, it is also a chronic waste of human potential to see so many of our fellow citizens trapped in poverty because they become dependent on benefits. How do we sort it out?

First, we need to make work pay. All too often people find themselves trapped in the situation where, if they work more than 16 hours a week, their benefits are withdrawn and they are worse off. This is crazy and we need to introduce a much simpler single benefit payment which is tapered so that it always pays to do more and work longer hours.

Second, if people come off benefits to take a job which doesn't work out, we need to make it easier for them to switch back to the support they had, otherwise they will be reluctant to try jobs in the first place.

Third, we need to be tougher about withdrawing benefits from people who could work but won't work. We also need to recognise that doing voluntary work is often a good first step towards employment because it helps people get used to getting out the bed and turning up for work on time and their confidence can grow as they become part of a team which depends on them.

Finally, we need much more support to help people get back to work. I meet many people who would like to do some work but they don't always get the support they need. This year the government is introducing the new Work Programme. It will be a radical new approach that goes beyond Job Centres and engages a whole range of private businesses, charities and social enterprises large and small to give people the help they need.

As well as the diversity of different projects on offer, the other big difference from what has gone before is that there will be payment by results. These private groups will only be paid if the people they are helping actually get a job and stay in work and they will be paid more for delivering in the most difficult cases.

In the past, agencies have all too often filled out some tick box questionnaire in an interview to pretend they have helped and then collected their fee. We need to put a stop to this by making sure they are only paid once they deliver. Payment by results is the best guarantee that good projects will grow and succeed and that the form fillers will be left behind. It will be an interesting year.

The Right Choice for Students

Making ends meet when the country inherited record debts and an annual black hole the size of the entire NHS budget was never going to be an easy task for the new Liberal Conservative government.

Last week saw the first tensions with student protests in London. The one predictable thing after any difficult protest is that armchair commentators ask questions about the police. I actually think they did an amazingly professional job given that the protest had been infiltrated by violent, far left extremists. As a country, we need to start expecting people to take responsibility for their own actions and, yes, that includes student protestors.

It was a difficult week for some Lib Dem colleagues but I do think that Nick Clegg demonstrated good leadership by doing what was right for the country even though he knew it would be unpopular.

I have some sympathy with future students on one level. They are being asked to pay back some of the cost of their university education when their parent’s generation were not. But, for years now, there has been a looming crisis around funding universities which needs to be addressed. The number of people wanting to go to university has shot up from about 13 percent a generation ago to almost 50 percent now. Having well funded academic institutions that are international centres of excellence is important to the competitiveness of our nation. The money needs to come from somewhere. You either have a sharp increase in taxes for everyone else or you ask those who actually benefit from a university education to pay back something towards it during their working life.

Some students say it is unfair to expect them to contribute to their own education at university. But why should someone who leaves school at 16, gets straight to work but might have to struggle on a low income have to subsidise a high flying doctor who might earn £300,000 per year? Is that fair? Under the current proposals, no graduate will be expected to pay a single penny back until they are earning over £21,000 a year. That’s a lot of money.

Everything in government is about choices. If you choose not to increase tuition fees you would have to take the money away from others and that wouldn't be fair. Alternatively you would have to cap the number of university places funded and perhaps return to the situation a generation ago where only a few people went to university and where millions of young people were told that university was not for them. I think that would be wrong too. We should aim to support young people in the choices they make in life and if large numbers of them want to go to university then we should put in place a system that makes that possible. That is what the government did last week.