Thursday, 31 March 2011

The Budget

The big political event last week was the Budget and parliament will continue to debate George Osborne’s proposals for most of this week. It is a difficult time to be Chancellor of the Exchequer. Times are hard but there is a huge black hole in the country’s finances and last year, the previous government made a loss of £150 billion. Turning those losses around while also doing the best he possibly can to ease the burden on hard pressed families was the balancing act the George Osborne faced.

The decision to reduce fuel tax and to fund a significant cut in South West Water bills were the two big announcements as far as Cornwall is concerned and were a good example of the extra clout that Cornwall now has within the new coalition government.

I have always disagreed with rises in fuel duty because I think it is a regressive tax which hits rural areas and peninsulas like Cornwall hardest of all. Our businesses have to transport their goods hundreds of miles up the road and there is no escaping higher fuel costs as a result. Fuel Duty was first introduced in the 1950’s as a temporary tax to fund the Suez War but they never took it back off and, today, it represents around 80 percent of the cost of the fuel we put in our cars. The decision to reverse the trend and start cutting taxes was welcome and the commitment to develop a policy to give a fuel tax rebate to rural areas like Cornwall was a very positive step forward.

The second important development was the commitment to end the injustice of unacceptably high water bills in Cornwall. Many household bills in Cornwall are currently double the national average as a result of the cost of maintaining our coastline. Politicians have talked about the problem for years but I have always felt we needed to move on from talking about the problem and start talking about a solution. Earlier this year I managed to persuade the DEFRA Select Committee to support my proposal of a Fair Discount Scheme which would mean targeted support to those with the greatest affordability problem but with the size of the discount heavily loaded towards those areas like Cornwall with the highest bills in absolute terms.

Although the government is still working on the details of how such a scheme would work, the biggest hurdle has been cleared and the significance of George Osborne including a commitment in his budget should not be underestimated. In all my discussions with ministers in recent months, concerns from the Treasury at how such a plan would work in practice always seemed the main stumbling block but they seem to have been persuaded to overcome those obstacles and take action to deal with this long running unfairness.

Monday, 28 March 2011

Who killed Truro Cathedral School?

Last Saturday I was invited to speak at the annual dinner of the Old Truronians Association, for former pupils of Truro Cathedral School, which had existed since the 1600’s and survived many wars but closed in 1982. It was a well supported event and I met Mary Presley, my very first teacher at the school, who I had literally not seen for 30 years.

My first conversation was with someone who asked me when I had Ieft the school, “1982”, I said. “So it was your fault” he joked. Politicians get the blame for a lot of things that are not really their fault and you get used to it. But the really big question about what contributed to the final downfall of this excellent school in 1982 remains unanswered.

My three years at Truro Cathedral School are what I associate most with my boyhood. It was an old fashioned prep school education. My memories are of conkers and marbles, “Blakeys” in our shoes to strike sparks on the playground and, occasionally (if we could get away with it) the Cathedral. Then there were outdoor camps made of grass during summer and, most of all, rough and tumble games of British Bulldog, before the days of health and safety kill-joys.

The reason the school closed remains a mystery. Undoubtedly, it was struggling to attract pupils in the depths of the 80’s recession. The school seemed anachronistic to some. In an age when education was supposedly being “modernised”, what place was there for an old fashioned boys Prep school? Parents with money to spend were starting to value “facilities”, swimming pools and the like, over the quality of teachers and a school ethos. Simultaneously, there was a failure of leadership within the Church of England. Changes in personnel meant that there was no one arguing the case for the school and, suspicions remain to this day, that it suited the church to sell off the school property to raise the capital needed to repair the roof of the cathedral in Truro. All this took place against the backdrop of an era when the nation was throwing away far too many of its past values in the name of modernity and people can see that today.

The thing that surprised me was there were nearly 60 people at the annual dinner. That shows the resilience of those left behind who, like me, will have fond memories of this amazing, yet fallen, school until the end. The real task is to project some of those values into the schools of the future.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Libya

A few weeks ago, the Prime Minister faced some criticism for taking a lead and calling on the world to the start planning the implementation of a no fly zone over Libya. I always thought that criticism was unfair. Even then, Gaddafi was talking about ‘fighting to the last bullet’ and was openly threatening to use military violence against his own people and civilian protesters. No Prime Minister of this country could sit on their hands and allow such a turn of events and I thought David Cameron was right to send a very strong signal that Britain would not tolerate it.

Foreign policy is always a difficult balancing act. It is unpredictable and there are usually unintended consequences. Every crisis if different and politicians often learn the wrong lessons from their most recent conflicts. In 1956, Britain was forced to withdraw from the Suez Canal after coming under pressure from the US government. That event led the British foreign policy establishment to become rather insecure for years to come. Even critics of David Cameron a few weeks ago seemed more worried that Britain had spoken before the Americans than with the substance of what he said.

During the 1990s, the rest of the world failed to take action to stop the genocide in Rwanda and was far too slow intervening in the Balkans to try to prevent ethnic cleansing. Britain learnt the right lessons from these two failures so took decisive action to send troops into the African state of Sierra Leone in 2000 to end the violence there and to reassert the authority of the elected government. The operation was a success.
However, that caused some to learn the wrong lessons and to think that intervention would always work. The difficult war in Iraq was arguably a bridge too far and was a painful reminder of the limitations of western intervention to remove bad regimes.

The free world does not have the appetite for another long war and the PM is right to rule out an occupying ground force in Libya. But we must always maintain perspective and take care not repeat the mistake we made of being too slow to help in the Balkans and Rwanda. Limited military operations, carried out from the air, with the clear objective of protecting civilians against a desperate dictator seems the right balance to strike in this instance. What’s more, it is being done with the backing of both the UN and the other Arab nations. The PM has shown good judgement.

A few years ago I visited our troops in Afghanistan with David Cameron. You couldn’t help but be enormously impressed by their professionalism and can-do attitude and now we are calling on their bravery again. It is important that we have a very clear objective in doing so.

Friday, 18 March 2011

Parish power

I had some late meetings in London last night principally to meet a group of business people who were backing my new proposal to curtail sharp practices by the banks by rebalancing the law in favour of enterprise and requiring banks to get a possession order before being able to enforce their security. I was worried I might miss the sleeper train but got there just in time.

It’s a busy programme today. I kick off at Camborne Town Council offices where the Mayor, John Beare and the Clerk, Amanda McClure talk me through some of the issues affecting Camborne at the moment and, in particular, the problem with some stupid laws introduced under the last government which create a new level of bureaucracy around basic things like temporary road closures for civic parades and events like Trevithick Day. Such laws are the sort of rubbish that people expect us to scrap and so I was keen to find out more.

I am running late, but set off for Lanner Parish Council who are in the process of putting together their own Parish Plan which is at an advanced stage. In Cornwall, now that we have a unitary authority, it is essential that we strengthen parish and town councils. Localism means stripping power away from national government and giving it to local authorities but it also means stripping power away from Cornwall Council and giving it to parish councils and community groups.

I have a few spare minutes to do an interview with Tamsin Melville from Radio Cornwall in the foyer of Lanner Village Hall. She is doing a news piece on the AV referendum. I am a very firm opponent of this crazy system which would mean some people get more votes than others and so I explained why we should stick with the principle of one person one vote.

Next up is Carharrack Parish Council at Mills Hall. They hold fortnightly lunches for older people in the village and the surrounding areas and so the volunteers are hard at work cooking today’s lunch. Carharrack has had to put up with the United Downs landfill longer than anyone expected but one side effect is that there is a very vibrant community spirit and lots of active people who care about the village and are willing to campaign for it.

I am now back on time, so much so that I manage to grab a sausage roll from the Portreath Bakery at Lanner on the way back to Pool School. Barnardos have teamed up with the Eden Project to launch a great initiative called the Aspiration Bus which is at the school today. It is a sort of careers advice service but with the emphasis on getting young people to realise that if they are tenacious and determined and have a passion, they can achieve things that they might not yet think possible.

Today is also red nose day and the staff at Pool School, led by Mrs Hill, are also laying on a cabaret performance for the children. It’s also a non uniform day so everyone is letting their hair down a bit. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go along and watch but just about managed to resist attempts by my old friend Dave Buzza and a teacher at the school to co-opt me on the Village People act they were doing!

Next it’s down the road to Duchy College to speak to their agriculture students about CAP reform, TB, supermarkets, the state of the dairy industry and animal welfare standards. I have known Phil Pengelly, the lecturer who organised the event, for 25 years since the days when we were in Young Farmers together. Also there were some of the agricultural engineers.

I have managed to make up quite a bit of time and so am able to clear some phone calls before heading down to Hayle to discuss the contentious issue of the Hayle Harbour regeneration plans and the ambition of making a reality of the Pioneerium community cinema project championed by Bob Amos and others.

Next, it’s back up to Redruth to the Penventon Hotel. Earlier today I did an interview with Radio Cornwall about AV. I am helping the campaign nationally because we need to defend our democracy and defend the principle of one person one vote. But to succeed we need to get everyone who cares to play their part and get the message out there. So this evening, along with Sarah Newton, I am addressing Cornish members and supporters to explain the importance of this debate and get the local campaign going.

I am starting to flag now and also running a few minutes behind schedule...but that was probably no surprise to the Praze Young Farmers Club holding their weekly meeting at Leedstown Village Hall because, when I was a member, timing was never my strong point. We had a very good discussion lasting well over an hour about a whole range of issues from parliament, the work of an MP to the DEFRA Select Committee, CAP reform, fuel prices and many more issues. I am a huge fan of the Young Farmers movement. It is where I learnt to do public speaking.

It was gone 9.30 when I went back to the restaurant at Trevaskis. Although they had basically finished and were trying to clean everything up, as always, they were very good and agreed to do just one last meal!

Tomorrow’s diary looks interesting. As well as having a dozen surgery appointments, we are also holding our first campaign day against AV in Camborne and the Hayle branch have a coffee morning.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Students debate No2AV at Tremough

Last Friday I attended a meeting organised by students at Tremough to discuss the proposal for a new voting system called AV. As I entered the lecture theatre there was a very animated argument going on between students with different views before we had even begun.
It was encouraging to see some passion in the debate and I wish the rest of the country would focus on it more. In just fifty days time, we will all be asked to go to the polls to vote on whether we want to scrap our current one person, one vote system, where you put a cross in the box and bring in a new multiple voting system where you write numbers beside all the candidates. It would be a major decision for our country but the debate has been slow to take off.

I think one of the reasons for that is that it is the referendum that no one really wants. The Conservatives want to keep one person, one vote, Labour voted against the Bill and most Labour MPs will campaign for a ‘no’ vote. The Lib Dems will be running the Yes campaign for AV but they don’t really want it either and would prefer to have a proportional system. Last weekend Lord Owen, the founder of the Liberal Alliance, said that he would be voting ‘no’ because AV would be the worst of all worlds – it would do nothing for smaller parties, would be less proportional than our current system and would prevent real reform to a system like PR.

As for voters themselves, most people are dismayed that we are considering spending hundreds of millions of pounds on changing our voting system at a time like this with everything else going on in the world.

One of the main arguments against AV is that it takes power away from the voters and gives it to politicians. Rather than voters deciding who the government should be and what its priorities are, under AV politicians tend to decide who the government is behind closed doors. That means more political stitch-ups and more broken promises.

I for one will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote. The idea that every man and woman in our country has an equal vote has been the hallmark of our democracy since the days of the suffragettes. We should stick with it. Under AV, some people get more votes than others. Someone who votes for the BNP is given a second bite of the cherry. That’s not fair. Our current system is used by over 70 countries but AV is used by just three and of those, Fiji is trying to get rid of it and most Australians want to return to the British system. But I am sure the debate will run and run over the next six weeks.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Creating new businesses

Last weekend, David Cameron set out his ideas to promote growth and enterprise in the economy. It’s important because I feel strongly that we need to lend a hand to those who find themselves out of work as a result of the action required to tackle the huge black hole in the public finances.

I don’t agree with those people who take the over-simplified view that the private sector is efficient and the public sector is not. It is not as simple as that. You only have to look at the incompetence and profligacy in the banking industry to see that the private sector doesn’t always get it right. Equally, you will often find among those who work in the public sector a strong sense of vocation and commitment. This makes them very employable and, despite the current uncertainty, many will find that, as one door closes, another opens.

A few weeks ago I met one of the recruitment agencies helping support former public sector employees back in to work. They told me there are a lot of opportunities for people coming from the public sector. In many cases, their most important task was to help people realise that and get their confidence back. When the news is dominated by talk of cuts and job losses, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that new businesses are starting up all the time – 30,000 in January alone and with these come new jobs.

Many people who have worked in the public sector have what it takes to become successful entrepreneurs. They often have good organisational skills, understand how to plan and deliver projects and are used to dealing with the public. The lesson from past recessions is that getting such people to ‘have a go’ and set up on their own in their thousands is one of the key ways to improving prosperity and creating the jobs of the future.

The government has created a new Enterprise Allowance to give unemployed people grants to help them set up their own business. They are also looking at measures to slash red tape and ease the burdens which hold back smaller businesses already up and running.
But it’s not all down to government. Successful economies are shaped by individuals with bright ideas which make money. The solution lies in creating an enterprise culture and that very often emerges from difficult times.

Last year I visited Real Base Training in Redruth which takes young people at risk of exclusion from school and inspires them with the idea that they could be their own boss. Last week I received a letter from a project called “Tenner Tycoon” which aims to promote enterprise in all schools by giving young people £10 to develop their business idea. These are small steps but the sort of thing we should encourage.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

NHS

Last week I visited the Camborne Redruth Hospital at Barncoose to visit staff and patients and discuss some of the changes that are currently being put forward to the way the NHS operates. There was a good atmosphere on the wards and some recent refurbishment means there was more space for each bed. They even had a small kitchen which was available for use by the patients on the stroke ward so that they could start to get used to independent living again.

The core value of our NHS is that it is free at the point of need and that will never change. The NHS is the one area of government spending that will see real term increases in its budget. I think that’s right. As medical science advances and new drugs come on the market, there will always be growing pressure on resources. However, while spending on the NHS will continue to grow, so too will the demands on it. So we need to make sure that money goes further and that we spend more on the front line and less on the back office.

The NHS is a very large organisation and trying to micro-manage it from Whitehall has never been successful. The culture of targets and tick box routines which became the predominant feature under the last government undermined morale among medical professionals who often found that they were prevented from doing what they knew was best because some central diktat got in the way. I don’t doubt that the last government had good intentions by setting targets but they had too many unintended consequences, with stories of people being held outside A&E departments so that, on paper, they could hit their targets for the time taken to get treated. Targets also took power away from doctors and nurses and led to a huge rise in the number of managers. In recent years, the number of NHS managers grew five times faster than the number of nurses. We all know that can’t be right.

The changes that the government is proposing will cut the number of managers and release a further £20 billion to the front line of the NHS. They will also put doctors and medical professionals back in charge so that they can commission the services they know their patients need. Finally, it will make it easier for third party health providers to lend a helping hand to the NHS and provide some extra capacity to speed up operations and clear waiting lists faster.

Our NHS is made by the people who work in it and they are motivated first and foremost by a desire to do their best for the patients in their care. It is this human value which we should harness and that is why I think it is right to give those health professionals more control.