Thursday, 21 June 2012

Murdoch Day

Despite some of the dire warnings, the weather just about held up for Murdoch Day in Redruth last Saturday. It was blustery and threatening to rain for most of the day but it was only towards the very end of the day that the heavy showers finally came in.

As well as the excellent procession in the morning involving many local schools, there were other impressive dance acts and bands performing throughout the day. I was particularly impressed by the a cappella singing of “Raising the Ruth”, in the bandstand outside Murdoch House during the afternoon.

It was also an opportunity to catch up with the team at Murdoch House – the former home of William Murdoch, the inventor and engineer who was one of the pioneers of steam power development in Cornwall and also famously invented the first ever gas light using piped gas. It is great to have such an important heritage asset right in the middle of the town and I have used it as a venue for a couple of events over the last year.

Last Saturday, they had a fascinating exhibition of old photographs and newspaper cuttings on show. It was a reminder of how much this town and the surrounding area gave to the rest of the world. Redruth is not just the industrial heart of Cornwall, it is also the home town for a great many of the seven million people around the world whose ancestors left Cornwall in the late 19th century to build the new world. Around a quarter of all the people who left Cornwall during this period came from the Redruth area and they travelled as far afield as Cape Town, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia and Wisconsin in the Unites States. Press cuttings from that time underline the human and social cost of this mass migration across the world in search of work with many instances of families separated for the rest of their lives and with wives and young families often left behind.

Cornwall Council will shortly decide where to locate the new Cornwall Records Office. It is an exciting idea which creates the opportunity to build on the resources which already exist in the county and could become a really important attraction for foreign tourists keen to trace their roots. Redruth is already home to the Cornish Studies Library and the Cornwall Migration project which helps people trace their Cornish ancestry. As the centre of the world-wide Cornish Diaspora, Redruth has a very strong claim to be the home of the new archive and there are currently some detailed proposals to perhaps locate it on the site of the old brewery so that we can transform that end of town and start the process of renewal and regeneration.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Leveson

Last week the Leveson Inquiry reached its peak with David Cameron, George Osborne, Gordon Brown and John Major all giving evidence. The inquiry has been uncomfortable for both politicians and the press, but I think it is a once in a generation opportunity to give good journalism the fresh start it needs and, hopefully, to reverse the decline in newspaper circulations.

Journalism has a crucial role in democratic society. At its best, it challenges the powerful, tests prevailing assumptions, gives voice to a plurality of competing views and provides a forum for national discussion on topical and important issues. If the public are to hold politicians to account at the ballot box, it is essential that they have access to reliable and accurate information. The role of the press is to give them that information.

But those who own the national press have not always been good custodians of journalism and have often elevated the commercial interests of papers above the interests of society. In some cases, they have provided the public with inaccurate information in order to promote their own agenda. Meanwhile, politicians from all parties got too close to newspaper proprietors.

When I was David Cameron’s Press Secretary, we pursued a strategy of quietly puncturing the arrogance of both editors and proprietors, and raising the status of what I termed real journalism. We wanted to take some of the swagger out of the press. We would spend less time having editors over for dinner but instead deal with journalists writing the stories and there would be fewer exclusive briefings to favoured papers. We were not going to pick a fight with the press, but we hoped that by behaving differently we could gradually change the culture in a way that would be healthier for all. But when a political party is subjected to a negative media frenzy, it is hard to ignore.

There is not much wrong with the Editors' Code which was used by the former Press Complaints Commission, the problem is that it was not really observed properly by some of the national newspapers. The phone hacking scandal and the widespread use of an illegal market in personal information happened because the definition of what is in the “public interest” has been too elastic and all too often has meant what the papers wanted it to mean, rather than being independently enforced.

I think that local and regional papers, like the Western Morning News, have done better and approached the Editors' Code conscientiously. They take complaints seriously, are much closer to their communities and tend to steer clear of gratuitous personal attacks. While they have clear views on issues, they tend to be more careful about taking sides politically because they need to appeal to the whole community. In contrast, I think that some national newspapers have regarded themselves as being above the Press Complaints Commission which has landed them in this mess.

If journalism is to operate in the public interest, it needs a credible public interest test. This will not only protect society but also journalists by giving them a valid defence in law for crossing boundaries to expose genuine wrongdoing or corruption. While I am sceptical about having a statutory regulator of press content, there is a powerful argument for some statutory underpinning to make self regulation actually work this time. For example, an auditor given powers to ensure that newspapers followed basic internal compliance procedures before invading someone’s privacy would be a step forward. But it is a difficult balance to get right and Lord Leveson has his work cut out.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Dangerous Dogs

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee of which I am a member recently launched an inquiry into the welfare of dogs. I have been arguing for this for some time. Two years ago I visited the National Animal Welfare Trust just outside Hayle and was shocked to hear about the problem of Staffordshire Bull Terriers being abandoned. I have also been struck by the excellent work done by the Cinnamon Trust, a national charity also based here at Hayle, which organises an army of volunteers to help exercise dogs whose owners are no longer able to and to re-home dogs whose owners have passed away.

There has been an appalling trend in recent years towards people breeding aggressive dogs to become so called “status dogs” which some young men now take with them, frankly, as an alternative to carrying a knife. In many cases, they lack the commitment to care for their dog or find that they cannot cope once the dog matures. As a result, dog kennels have been inundated with abandoned dogs which have often been reared to be aggressive and which, sadly, are usually unsuitable to be re-homed with families. All too often they have to be put down which is a shameful indictment on our society.

In the last year, there has been an increasing trend towards larger breeds, such as mastiffs, also being abandoned because their owners cannot handle them. And there have been a growing number of instances of gentle natured Labrador guide dogs being attacked by aggressive dogs on the street, prompting calls for a change in legislation.

I think we need to look again at the law in this area. The Dangerous Dogs Act was brought in over 20 years ago and sought to ban certain violent breeds of dog but it was always arbitrary and is increasingly out of date. During a recent visit to Battersea Dogs Home I was told the harrowing story of a young (and friendly) Pitbull Terrier which had been neglected and almost starved to death but had been rescued just in time. However, because of its breed, it would have to be put down anyway.

It’s not the dogs we need to target but their owners. I think we should require licensing for the breeding of certain types of dog which are intended to become guard dogs so that you have reputable breeders, not back street puppy farms. I would also be open to the idea of some basic vetting before people are allowed to own a dog to ensure they will provide a loving home. The RSPCA would not re-home a rescue dog without first assessing where it was going, so why do we allow unsuitable people to buy a puppy?

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.

Monday, 11 June 2012

Jubilee Celebrations

Last weekend’s celebrations to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee demonstrated the affection felt for the Royal Family throughout the country. Travelling around, it has been great to see so many union jack flags on display and so many local communities pulling together to hold a jubilee party.

I can just about remember the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977, or at least remember being given a commemorative mug as a gift. Sixty years makes the Queen one of the longest reigning monarchs ever and she has seen an era of extraordinary change both for our country and the world during that time. She has had no less than twelve different British Prime Ministers leading government’s under her reign, each coming in with big ideas to sort everything out. And she has so far seen eleven of them come unstuck for one reason or another.

But I think that is what is so special and unique about the British constitution. We separate our politics from the Royal Family. Politicians come and go. They take the decisions that they think and believe are right for the country at the time but when things go wrong they are thrown out. But, all the while, the monarchy provides consistency and continuity for the country and none more so than our current Queen. The monarch as head of state symbolises Britain’s staying power and its ability to unite in common endeavour.

Whatever political views people might have, they can still come together to celebrate the Queen’s jubilee. Our politics can be fought out on the issues of the day between rival political parties, but the Queen symbolises our country’s ability to unite. When the Queen delivers her speech to parliament at the start of each parliamentary session, it is the convention that the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition walk side by side from the House of Commons to the House of Lords making friendly conversation along the way and every MP must sign an oath of allegiance to the Queen on taking their seat in parliament.

The British constitution has, famously, evolved over many centuries in a rather unusual way. Cornwall’s special position in the United Kingdom as a Duchy is expressed through the Crown. When many other countries were throwing out their monarchies and introducing new, political presidents, Britain found a better way. The power of the Crown was not destroyed but was effectively loaned to democratically elected governments which meant we retained the best of both worlds. It means that no government can sign a treaty or take a decision which binds its successor and that is what guarantees Britain’s absolute independence as a nation. But it also means that ultimate power rests in a Head of State around whom everyone can unite.

George Eustice can be contacted at george.eustice.mp@parliament.uk or 1 Trevenson Street, Camborne, Cornwall TR14 8JD or by telephone on 020 72197032.