Friday, 25 February 2011

A day in the life...

Someone told me other day that since I had taken to describing this site as an online diary rather than a blog, I should sometimes give a run down of my engagements as you would expect from a diary. So here goes...

I had to drive down from London late last night. It took two cans of Red Bull to keep me alert which had the unintended consequence of meaning I had even less sleep than I anticipated.

We started today at Carn Brea Leisure Centre where I had a tour and meeting to discuss this success story. I have many fond childhood memories at Carn Brea and was a regular user of the athletics track. Ten years ago this vital community asset temporarily closed but the local people were having none of it and formed a Social Enterprise to take over the building. Today it is the model that others want to follow and has been awarded the Social Enterprise Mark.

Next, we moved on to a round table meeting with a group of farmers and NFU members from West Cornwall. Our 90 minute discussion covered a wide range of issues from TB to the supermarket ombudsman, nitrogen vulnerable zones, the agricultural wages board, solar power and red diesel.

Next we head over to Redruth to meet the Citizens Advice Bureau. I have a lot of time for the great work they do in the area and today our session focussed on the problems of debt and, in particular, how to tackle the problems caused by door step lenders who cause so much misery.

Back to Camborne for 2pm for a meeting with Alan Milliner from White Gold, a very successful project which helps to tackle youth re-offending. It is one project that delivers results and has been recognised for its good work but they need some help making sure they can access new government schemes to support former offenders back into work. It is an area that has been prioritised by the coalition.

It's then back to Redruth for a visit and meeting with staff at Camborne and Redruth Hospital. There are quite a few structural changes taking place in the NHS at the moment which will transfer more power downwards to patients and the doctors who treat them. Some of the ideas are controversial so I wanted to see the largest community hospital in Cornwall and get a sense of how things will affect them. Clive, Debbie and Wayne give me a tour of the hospital. There is a good atmosphere on the wards and enthusiasm from staff which is always encouraging. There has been some recent refurbishment on one of the wards which has made a real difference.

Next its back to Camborne for a meeting with Joff Bullen, arguably Cornwall's leading authority on Cornish mining heritage. I was keen to explore with him how we can improve the performance of groups like English Heritage, Icomos and UNESCO so that we deliver some value to our economy from World Heritage Site Status. He gives me some good ideas for a conference I am planning on the subject.

We have 20 minutes to grab a bite to eat before heading down to Gweek at 6.45 for the latest in the series of "meet your MP" events which we are running throughout local villages. Issues in Gweek range from street lighting to the free schools policy, Gweek Boatyard, bus services, speed limits and planning appeals. With quite a few national issues chucked in too!

I have been running surgeries every Saturday morning since being elected. They are a great way of keeping in touch with local concerns and spotting emerging trends and problems. Demand for them is growing and so tomorrow we have a dozen appointments lasting seven hours. So I had better try to get more sleep tonight!

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The funding for technology in wave power

Last week I managed to secure a debate on parliament on the future of the wave power industry. In Cornwall, we have a resource of wave power that is second to none. The Atlantic swell is powerful but the conditions are not too extreme. Wave Hub in Hayle is the first test facility of its type anywhere in the world. It will allow us to develop arrays of commercial scale wave power devices at deep water locations and gives us the opportunity to be world beaters.

It has been estimated that wave power could eventually meet between 15 and 20% of Britain’s power needs and produce enough electricity to power 11 million homes. With all of this comes economic potential. The industry could be worth £2 billion by 2050 creating more than 16,000 jobs. Some analysts have gone as far as to suggest that wave and tidal power industries together might employ 10,000 people by as early as 2020. This would be good news for Hayle but we have a lot of hurdles to clear first and the industry is probably still another 5-10 years away from being perfected.

The Camborne and Redruth constituency is also home to PRIMaRE which is an academic centre in marine energy based at the university at Tremough and there are some very good courses in renewable energy being run at Cornwall College. I visited Tremough last summer. They were doing research into the moorings needed to anchor these devices 10-12 miles out at sea. Our coastline is famously choppy and, at times, can be severe enough to wreck boats so developing the right moorings is an important task.

In the short term, we need to focus on getting devices in the water at Hayle. Currently one operator, Ocean Power Technologies, has signed an agreement to take one of the four plugs available on Wave Hub. We need to get three other technology developers in place as soon as possible to maintain momentum.
The point I was making in the debate was that support was needed for technology innovation to get the industry to the next level. The last government launched what it called the Marine Renewable Deployment Fund but there were so many conditions attached that no one ever managed to access it successfully. I am generally sceptical about giving out government subsidies. However, where they do have a role is when you have projects with huge potential but high short term risks. Government investment in research and development in such situations can kick start new industries and draw in many times more private investment.

The new government recognises that and is introducing Technology Innovation Centres to drive the development of new industries. We might just have one of the first of these new research and development hubs here in the south west to develop wave power.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

From now on, I will refer to everyone as "Tremough"

In the summer of 2009, I organised a national conference on marine energy which we held at the Tremough campus. The building in which we were holding it had a plaque on the wall which said, "Camborne School of Mines" and so that was what we put on the invites. It soon became clear that we had committed some faux pas and this had offended people at Tremough because apparently the wave power work was being done partly by Exeter University. On several times since I have inadvertently managed to forget to mention some partner or other in the labyrinth that is the Combined Universities for Cornwall.

Last week in my speech to parliament, I decided to hedge my bets and mention both Camborne School of Mines and Exeter University. It turns out that I should have mentioned Plymouth University who also have a leading role in the venture.

The CuC project has been a great success and it is great to have it all in the Camborne and Redruth constituency. But I think from now on I will do my bit for clarity by describing all of them simply as, "the university at Tremough." Hopefully that will not cause offence!

Village Hall meetings

With parliament now in recess it has been a good opportunity to press ahead with the latest series of village hall meetings I have organised where we have a public question and answer session open to all.

We did one in Mawnan Smith before Christmas and another in Stithians a couple of weeks ago. This Friday I am in Gweek and last Friday I was in Constantine.

The big issue in Constantine at the moment is the proposal for a large solar power farm at Brill on the outskirts of the village. The last government set up a policy to encourage solar panels on roofs and so called "micro-generation". Those installing solar panels are guaranteed a "feed in tariff"- a guaranteed payment per KWh of electrcity put in to the national grid which is above the prevailing market rate. The cost is ultimately absorbed by electricity consumers through slightly higher electrcity bills.

The new government fully supports the idea of encouraging micro-generation. Recently Camborne Church told me that they were investigating the possibility of putting solar panels on their roof which would generate an income to support some of their good work in the community. However, there has been something of a stampede from commercial developers who want to set up field scale solar farms and pick up the subsidy and that is not what was intended by the current policy. Because the current Feed in Tariff is guaranteed for 25 years, the new government has decided to review the rates paid and publish new levels in June which will probably involve paying a lower feed in tariff for field scale projects but leave the incentives for projects like that being considered by Camborne Church the same. It makes sense and will mean that everyone knows where they stand by this June rather than next March as the previous government had intended.

The idea of field scale solar farms is new to this country and is causing planners a headache too. I think that it is crucial in such situations to deliver a real benefit to the community if such schemes are to be considered. In some parts of the country, progress has been made with community ownership schemes where local communities who are asked to accept, say, a wind farm or solar farm on their doorstep are given free shares in the company or maybe guaranteed free electricity for the life of the project. We have to stop our planning system being a zero sum game where if the developer wins, the community loses. Such benefits need to be hard financial benefits with immediate impact. At the moment, the guidance from Cornwall planners is that developers should consider offering other "green" commitments like eco buses and the like. I doubt that will cut the mustard. Free electricity might.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Voting rights for prisoners

Should prisoners be allowed to vote? Some judge or other at the European Court of Human Rights thinks they should and the result has been a serious clash between our elected parliament and the Strasbourg court.

Last week parliament debated the issue and, along with most Conservatives, I voted to reject the ECHR judgement and reinforce the current position that prisoners should not be entitled to vote. I can't believe that having the ability to vote is very high up the agenda for most prisoners but I think there is an important principle that if someone loses their liberty as a result of committing a crime, then that should include losing their right to vote.

But the debacle has raised a much bigger issue that needs to be addressed and that is the unacceptable intrusion in the governance of our nation by international bureaucracies in recent years. From the European Union to the ECHR, organisations that might mean well have accumulated far too much power and need to have their wings clipped.

The European Convention on Human Rights was established after the last war with the aim of getting internationally agreed principles on human rights legislation that would prevent the emergence of another Hitler like figure in any European country. It is a list of perfectly laudable but broad aims which most people would support.

However, over the years, clever barristers have made ever more creative arguments in front of judges citing "human rights" and so what was once a good idea has become abused by the lawyers and has been turned in to a by-word for injustice. That can’t go on and we need to take action to sort out the ECHR.

We have a long tradition in this country of the separation of powers between the government and the courts. An elected parliament makes the laws and the courts job is to implement those laws independently. However, when judges stray from their role and start setting public policy through their judgements in a way which neither the elected parliament nor the public intended, you need to take swift action to give the judges clearer guidance.

The problem with the ECHR is that the laudable aims are very vague. Worse still, Tony Blair made the mistake of introducing the Human Rights Act which hard wired the legislation into our own legal system and it has been causing havoc ever since.

The only solution is to abolish the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights which explains to the courts what the European Convention means within our own shores. We should also put the ECHR itself on probation to give it time to raise its game but on the understanding that it, too, might need sorting out. That was the real issue at stake in last week’s debate.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Camborne Redruth Motor Club

Last night I attended the annual awards ceremony of the Camborne Redruth Motor Club at Redruth Rugby Club.

As a boy I would occasionally spend time at Martin Richard's farm at Hayle where we would ride on his mini motor bike. We all had hours of fun. Martin Richards went on to achieve a great deal in competitive trial biking competitions.

The club also helps support a charity which aims to engage teenage boys in motorbike competitions and inspire them to become engineers by teaching them mechanics and maintenance skills on the bikes.

It is a good project and the club is currently on a recruitment drive to expand the number of youth members it has. One of the most interesting things I saw was a video of an electric trials bike which costs a bit less and also makes less noise! I am sure there are hundreds of boys in Camborne, Redruth and Hayle who would love the chance to ride a motorbike and clubs like this might just make it possible.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Youth Parliament

Last Saturday I attended the final of the Youth Parliament elections for Cornwall. It is a great initiative which gives young people a taste of democracy and politics but, most important of all, can help develop their confidence through public speaking.

For me it brought back memories of the first time I spoke in public. I had just turned 16 and had been bounced into representing Praze Young Farmers in a speaking competition at Lostwithiel. I can remember wondering what I had let myself in for but I had some excellent coaching from Beatrice Dyer of Camborne School and never looked back.

For many people, politics is a dirty word. At the last election, the thing I found depressing was meeting people who said they couldn’t be bothered to vote. Complacency, apathy and antipathy all weaken our democracy and we should resist them. The truth is that our democratic political system is far better than the alternatives. I remember ten years ago going to Eastern Europe and seeing the enthusiasm and vibrancy of those new democracies with high turnouts and new parties starting from scratch. They had experienced the alternative so valued their newly established democratic politics.

By its nature, politics is about the art of the possible seeking to balance conflicting and competing interests. The government sets an agenda it thinks is right but it has to carry the support of its MPs. MPs will do what they think is right but are very mindful of the views of their constituents and frequently apply private pressure on their government. It is not easy to change things overnight but that is for a good reason: any new policy introduced will have unintended consequences which need to be considered in advance. But where change is required, it can always be delivered and when voters get tired of any government, they know how to fire them. The ability to fire a government that has run its course is one of the main reasons we should keep our current voting system and say ‘no’ to AV in May’s referendum.

There are things we could do to strengthen our democracy. I think there should be more free votes in parliament where party whips step back and encourage MPs make up their own mind more often. The reason the current party system developed is that, in its absence, no one could agree or get anything done. But a loosening of party dividing lines in some circumstances would be beneficial, especially when it comes to scrutinising laws.

Everyone has a role in making a democracy successful from those who join parties to those who write to their MP. So congratulations to all those who participated in this year’s Youth Parliament competition including Jamie Long who represented Camborne and especially Amy Greygoose and Kyle McGill who were elected to represent West Cornwall.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

the annual dinner

I would normally catch the sleeper train down overnight on Thursday ready for a day of meetings and engagements at home on Friday and the weekend. But this evening we have our annual Conservative dinner at the Penventon Hotel in Redruth so I have left parliament early to get there in time.

Baroness Warsi, the Party Chairman, is our guest speaker tonight. I have known Sayeeda for about six years since the days when Michael Howard made her a Deputy Chairman of the Party. I also remember going with her to a fantastic project in Dewsbury which she had set up to help children from minority ethnic backgrounds where English was not the first language in the home. Volunteers would go to the homes of such families and read to the children in English to help them develop their understanding of the English language and ensure they were well placed to benefit from lessons at school.

Sayeeda was one of the early pioneers of social action in politics which David Cameron was so impressed by that he made it a central plank of his agenda. The train gets us in just in time (hopefully) for the start and it will be good to have the chance to catch up with those friends and supporters who worked so hard in last year's election.

I have also managed to persuade the Prime Minister to sign a bottle of whisky for the auction which will hopefully raise a bit of money for the cause!

Mining returns to Cornwall

Redruth has long been recognised as the international home of the tin and copper mining industries. During the 19th Century, the town became a booming centre of commerce on the back of this world beating industry.

I recently visited South Crofty to meet some modern day miners who want to re-open the mine and have already invested a considerable sum of money prospecting. Because we associate tin mining with our industrial past, it is common for people to dismiss the idea that Cornish mining might once again be a successful, profitable industry. Throughout the 20th century, there were periods where tin prices peaked and the industry was temporarily profitable again, only to be followed by the inevitable bust.

Can they buck that trend now? The first thing to say is that these plans are for a modern, state of the art mine that would be unlike anything that has gone before. It would be the most modern mine in the UK today. The technology for separating out various metals has developed in leaps and bounds in recent years. So this time round, they would not just be mining for tin, but also Zinc, Copper and other trace elements simultaneously.

The most important and sought after of these trace elements is Indium. I hadn’t heard of it before, but it is there on the Periodic Table. It turns out that Indium is a crucial ingredient in the production of modern touch screen technology. The rapid emergence of an entire new industry in I-pads and I-phones has driven demands for Indium through the roof and there has been a ten-fold increase in the price in the last decade. At the moment, most of the world’s supply of Indium is controlled by China. That would change if South Crofty re-opened.

Tin has also experienced a revival and its price has been driven higher by new high-tech industries. Most of the tin produced today is used to produce solder for the electronics industry. A few years ago, new legislation came out which banned the use of lead in soldering metal and so most solder today uses tin and tin alone. So every mobile phone, computer, X-Box or other electronic gadget needs tin to make them tick. When you weigh all this up, it stops looking like an old industry.

This is an exciting time for Camborne and Redruth. I have always made clear that delivering economic regeneration is my number one priority. Last autumn, work began on the new Heartlands project at Pool which is really taking shape. But within the next few years, if we get things right, we could have a new mine employing 400 people, a new link road joining Camborne and Redruth, new housing in Tuckingmill and a whole range of new industries offering skilled, highly paid jobs for local people.