Friday, 27 May 2011

Freedom of the Press

The furore over the privacy of a famous footballer has thrown into the spotlight the thorny issue of press freedom and the right to privacy.

I have always opposed international bureaucracies deciding policies which ought to be set by national parliaments. We have a long tradition in this country of the clear separation of powers between parliament, which makes laws and the courts, which independently implement those laws. When the courts start to interpret laws in a way that neither parliament nor the public intended, then parliament must give greater clarity to judges.

On the face of it, that is what is happening in these cases relating to so called “super-injunctions” lodged by the rich and famous to protect their privacy. In the absence of clear political guidance, the courts have made what are termed “public policy decisions” and decided for themselves how to interpret the very vague principles that are set down by the European Court. That is usually a recipe for a bit of a mix up, so the orders that the courts have set down have been difficult to enforce because they didn’t stem from clearly thought through laws.

That said, this is a problem that has been brewing for a long time. The reason the courts have been pulled in to this area in the first place is that parliament has consistently ducked the challenge of trying to create a stronger framework of expectations around our media. There is an accepted principle that one person’s right to privacy must be balanced against the right to freedom of speech. The agreed test is that if it is in the “public interest” that a piece of information be published, then freedom of speech trumps the right to privacy.

The trouble is that, over the years, some of our national newspapers who want to boost their circulation have confused things that are “in the public interest” (ie for the common good) with things that are simply “an interesting read for the public” and sex sells certain newspapers. The boundaries have been gradually pushed further and further as newspapers fight off falling circulations. Meanwhile, politicians have never felt it a good time to address the issue and face up to the brewing problem because no government or party in opposition wants to face an angry backlash from newspaper editors who guard the status quo with zeal. So things have been allowed to drift along.

The current clash between the media, the courts and parliament will probably force greater clarity. The answer probably lies in toughening up the current voluntary code that newspapers work to so that it is clearer, more independent and with tougher sanctions for breaches but where there is a clearer test of what is in the public interest and an unambiguous defence of freedom of speech.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

Fish Discards

Last week I spoke in the parliamentary debate on fish discards. I feel strongly that the way we kill fish unnecessarily and throw them back, dead into the sea on such an industrial scale is an absolute scandal and it has continued for far too long.

The environmental consequences of the Common Fisheries Policy have been recognised for more than twenty years. Around 22 percent of the fish discarded are fish which are caught but for which there is no quota and the remaining 24 percent are fish which are undersize. It’s time the practice stopped and if we need to break up the CFP to achieve that, then so be it.

The truth is that most successful policy innovation in recent years has taken place where national governments have been free to experiment with new ideas and new approaches. Norway has found a way of dealing with the problem of discards caused by fish that are caught over quota by allowing fishermen to land them but paying them only a fraction of the market price. Scotland has had success with “real time closures” where areas are closed to fishing when there is a problem with excessive by-catch. This creates an incentive for the industry to use netting gear which reduces the number of fish caught for which there is no market. Devon fishermen have been involved in another successful project which brought scientists and fishermen together to find ways of improving fishing practices in a way which has reduced fish discards by over 50 percent.

How do we expand ideas which have worked? The structure of the European Union does not really lend itself to such an evidence based approach. Policy making is frequently reduced to a mere negotiation. We need to make the CFP more flexible and that is why I am attracted to the idea of breaking up the current structure and putting in place a regionalised management system. You could retain a common objective: to protect the eco-system and have sustainable fishing. But the way you would deliver that common objective would respond to the local realities and there would be room to try new approaches.

It is not all the fault of the EU. Over half of the fish that are discarded are fish for which there is currently no market. One of the most important outcomes from Channel 4’s recent Fish Fight series was to create demand for other fish species. I recently visited Falfish, a fish processor in Redruth, who reported a significant increase in demand for Pouting which, while far smaller, has a similar texture to cod. Creating a market for currently unfashionable fish is an area where we all have a role to play. Consumers should be more adventurous and the industry should do more to promote the values of these lesser known fish species.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

Back to the issues that matter

Now that the contentious issue of whether to change our voting system has been settled once and for all, it’s time for the government to knuckle down to the real priorities of people in Cornwall such as water charges, the NHS, welfare reform and job creation.

Last week I attended a meeting with the DEFRA Minister to discuss how we take forward the government’s commitment to make available £40 million per year to finally resolve the historic unfairness of high water bills in the South West. It’s a major step forward and a good example where Conservative and Lib Dem MPs in Cornwall have achieved something together. The proposals could deliver savings of over £50 per household but we have to get the details right.

Earlier this week, the proposed changes to the NHS were also debated in parliament. The government aims to give more power to doctors and spend less money on managers. But the proposals are controversial and have caused concern from some quarters. While I support the principle of putting doctors and nurses in charge, the NHS is a big organisation and major reorganisations always carry the risk of unintended consequences so I am pleased that the government has decided to take a pause, listen to all of the concerns people have and, yes, make changes to their proposals to ensure we get it absolutely right.

This month also sees the start of a new approach to help those trapped on benefits back to work and important reforms to the process for assessing people on Incapacity Benefit. In the past, the assessments have been far too much of a tick box routine and I frequently have people attending my surgery who feel that the assessment didn’t identify the problems they have. The new system will take far greater account of medical evidence from doctors from the start and will give people the right to have a second opinion if they don’t agree with their assessor. Finally, there will be intensive help to support people back in to some sort of work. Pilots elsewhere in the country have shown that, of those currently on Incapacity Benefit, almost two thirds are able to do some work and desperately want the help to get there.

Finally, more than anything else, Cornwall needs new jobs. Last Monday I met a group of students from Hayle Community School who were on a visit to parliament. We discussed at length the potential for job creation in Hayle. The school places enterprise at its heart. Every student learns a foreign language (some two) and there is a real focus on encouraging students to set up their own business. It is exactly the sort of approach that we need more of and there was no shortage of good ideas from the Hayle pupils I met.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The Royal Wedding

The Royal Wedding has made it a week when we can all be proud to be British and it has shown the value to our country of having a non-political Head of State. There are times when you need consistency and resilience and an institution that can unite the whole country. The Queen has seen twelve Prime Ministers come and eleven go. Our monarchy has proved itself capable of adapting over the generations and the thousands of street parties around the country showed that it is still held in affection

Those of us in Cornwall had a second reason to be proud last weekend because it was also Trevithick Day in Camborne. Star of the show, as always, was the replica of the Puffing Devil, invented by Richard Trevithick. It is a wonderful contraption and can travel at an incredibly fast pace. I made my maiden speech in parliament about inventors like Richard Trevithick and William Murdoch and the lessons we can learn from them.

As is so often the case, Richard Trevithick didn’t make his fortune from his endeavours, in fact quite the reverse. He ended his life with no money at all. And as he pioneered new ideas and tried new approaches deemed unthinkable at the time, he was lampooned by critics who attacked his new technology as dangerous.

While Trevithick was Cornish through and through he was open to the rest of the world and craved what could be learnt from the experiments of others. He spent many years of his life working alongside other engineers in London and mining in South America. It was a time when Cornwall was at the forefront of the industrial revolution and they didn’t allow distance to get in their way.

What can we learn from him? First, this part of Cornwall left an incredible legacy to the world and we should celebrate it but also have the confidence to be pioneers again. Second, we are at our best when we face out towards the rest of the country and the rest of the world and should never allow inward looking isolationism to hinder our potential.

In my research into Trevithick, I came across this quote from the great man: "I have been branded with folly and madness for attempting what the world calls impossibilities. This so far has been my reward from the public; but should this be all, I shall be satisfied by the great secret pleasure and laudable pride that I feel in my own breast from having been the instrument of bringing forward and maturing new principles and new arrangements of boundless value to my country. However much I may be straitened in pecunary circumstances, the great honour of being a useful subject can never be taken from me, which to me far exceeds riches".

That says it all.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Encouraging Responsibility

Last Wednesday I spoke at a meeting of the Lent Group at St Andrew’s Church in Redruth. The subject for discussion was the Big Society, what it means and how we can encourage more of it. We had a lively debate.

I sometimes come across people who say there is nothing new about the Big Society. There are many voluntary groups that have practiced it for years and the Church is perhaps the longest and most enduring example of such community spirit and activism. I couldn’t agree more. The idea is not new. I see it all around this constituency from youth groups like Searchlight in Redruth to social enterprises such as CN4C and the Redruth North Partnership. Last December I attended the 10th anniversary of the refurbishment of the All Saint’s Centre in Camborne which has been a great success and now hosts a whole range of community activities from home help services for the elderly to day care and many other community groups.

But the Prime Minister has never pretended that the idea of the Big Society is something new. In fact what he is saying is quite the reverse: that our society needs to rediscover some of those older values to create a stronger society and the question for government is what policies would foster a renaissance in such community groups and to make them stronger.

During the last 50 years or so, people have increasingly withdrawn from their responsibilities to society and retreated into their shell. They are now less likely to support their local church, less likely to be involved in local politics and less likely to know all their neighbours than they once would have been. In the past, if there were teenagers misbehaving in the street, they would have been challenged. Adults feel less inclined to do so today. We have ended up treating children like adults and adults like children.

One of the reasons for this is that a culture developed where people started to think that sorting out society’s problems was someone else’s responsibility. If things went wrong, then it was someone else’s fault. As government increasingly seemed to come forward with new laws, individuals started to think they couldn’t make much difference on their own any more. The pressures of the mass media compounded the situation by demanding new crackdowns and initiatives from government in response to isolated events. This in turn created a mass of bureaucracy. The pervasive growth of “risk assessments”, CRB checks and the like has stifled the natural human desire to do a good turn and created a culture where people think they need permission to be active citizens.

They shouldn’t and to reverse the trend, we need to encourage responsibility, scrap pointless bureaucracy, be more grown up about risk. Most of all, people need to realise that they can make a difference.