Thursday, 29 November 2012

Leveson

This week sees the long awaited publication of the report by Lord Leveson into the ethics and conduct of the press. The inquiry was set up after it was revealed that the News of the World had hacked the phone of the murdered schoolgirl, Milly Dowler, as well as the phones of servicemen killed in action which prompted public outrage. The inquiry was uncomfortable for both politicians and the press but it also represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to put things right and to place the newspaper industry on a firmer footing.

I believe passionately in a free press and think it has a vital role to play in a free society. But you can never have true liberty unless you also have accountability and the major weakness of the national press is that it harbours unaccountable power which has been abused and the end result is that the police have now had to get involved and make arrests of journalists. None of us should feel comfortable about that. It would be better by far to have a credible and independent regulator recognised in law so that we don’t have to have the police crawling through newsrooms in future.

The idea of replacing the current “self regulation” of the press with a new regulator backed by statute is anathema to some of the wealthy proprietors of the big national newspapers, but I have come to the view that the system would be far more independent and more stable if it had the benefit of recognition in the law. It would allow you to create real incentives for newspapers to take part in the system by creating exemptions from exemplary fines or by creating a more affordable system of arbitration so that newspaper editors didn’t live in fear of having to fight billionaires with deep pockets through the courts.

I spent several years as Press Secretary to David Cameron so saw the workings of our media up close. My experience led me to make my own submission to the Leveson Inquiry. In my evidence I said I thought that concerns about the impact of an independent regulator on free speech were hugely exaggerated. We already have a Broadcasting Act but some of the best investigative journalism in Britain is done by broadcasters on programmes like Watchdog and Panorama.

I also said that Lord Leveson’s inquiry could learn lessons from regional and local papers like the Western Morning News and the West Briton and Cornishman because, in all my experience, the editors of local newspapers have always approached the Editor’s Code far more conscientiously and diligently than the major national newspapers. This is partly because they are part of the community and feel a greater sense of responsibility. If national newspapers had behaved in the same way, the system might not be broken.

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.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Reining in the power of the supermarkets

On Monday, parliament debated the Bill being introduced which will establish the new Groceries Code Adjudicator to protect farmers and growers from sharp practices deployed by the big supermarkets. It is an important step forward supported by all parties and, as a member of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee, I spoke in the debate.

It is an area where I have some direct experience because, long before entering politics, I spent ten years in the farming industry supplying strawberries and cauliflowers to the major supermarkets. In that time I saw first-hand some of the sharp practices used and the way that supermarkets would often abuse their dominant market position to treat suppliers unfairly. They would often insist on farmers buying other goods and services such as haulage from “approved” contractors who would invariably charge more than the market rate. Growers would be required to take part in cut price promotions in store. Often the cost of perished stock on the shelves would be clawed back from the supplier, in some cases with their own retail margin taken too. And if a buyer had made a mistake and placed an order for more than they actually needed, they would find any excuse to reject a consignment, throwing the cost back on the farmer. Things haven’t got much better. Last year I met a supplier to supermarkets who said that he was now required to show them his annual accounts so that they could work out how much harder they could drive him into the ground and I still come across examples of supermarkets making unfair demands on their suppliers.

The Groceries Supply Code of Practice was introduced a couple of years ago and set out some standards on how supermarkets should behave such as paying their suppliers on time, not making retrospective changes to pricing and no longer forcing suppliers to use certain third party contractors which restricts the functioning of a fair market. The new adjudicator will help to enforce that code properly. It will allow farmers to make anonymous complaints about supermarkets and it will be able to “name and shame” those who breach the code and order changes in the way buyers manage their relationship with suppliers.

There has been much debate about whether the adjudicator should have other sanctions at its disposal, such as the ability to levy fines against persistent offenders. The government is currently saying that the adjudicator will not initially have the power to fine but that this could be added at a later date if necessary. In my view, they might as well make this sanction available from day one because if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing properly.

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, 19 November 2012

Remembrance Day

Last weekend I attended remembrance services in both Illogan and Camborne where there was a record turnout and standing room only in the church. All of the various cadet and scout groups were out in force. I have noticed the attendance from all of these fantastic youth groups grow significantly year after year and it really bodes well for the future.

Next year will see the phased reduction British troops on active combat in Afghanistan the handover to a British trained Afghan Army is acclerated and due be completed by 2014. If the experience in Iraq is anything to go by, peace and normality can follow such a withdrawal of troops provided the groundwork has been done. After more than a decade of conflict, ending the mission in Afghanistan will be a relief for all. As well as the rising number of those killed in action, there have been thousands wounded and tens of thousands who suffer from some form of post traumatic stress and find it difficult to return to normal life.

I went to Afghanistan in 2006 when I worked for David Cameron and saw first-hand the extraordinary professionalism of our armed forces. While there, David Cameron was introduced to a specialist sniper in the army who had just completed his first tour of duty. He can’t have been much more than twenty years old but was earnest beyond his years. His job was to protect patrols from ambush using a long range rifle, particularly in built up areas where Apache attack helicopters could not be used. Later that day we were told in a matter-of-fact, army way that this young man had something they described as “twenty six confirmed kills.” I always remember the phrase because it drove home to me the extraordinary burden we put on our young soldiers. It is not just the risk they take but the things we expect them to do in our name. The then Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan showed me a photo of a platoon of 19 year old soldiers who were on a Chinook helicopter back from their first night time combat mission. They had a haunted look in their eyes and he explained that some soldiers can put things away in their heads better than others but it is never easy.

A couple of weeks ago I visited Surf Action which is a charity that tries to help combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Some of their work involves bringing people with similar experiences together socially along with their partners. They organise wildlife walks and surfing lessons, using nature to reconnect people with life. Like some other charities, they also use a range of other psychotherapies and forms of sensory or hypnotherapy to help former soldiers recover from the events that this decade of war has exposed them to. The work of groups like this is vital.

Surf Action is based at Unit 5, Heartlands, Pool. www.surfaction.co.uk. Telephone 01209 613300.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Nurturing enterprise in the next generation

I have always believed that the key to getting the country moving again and creating new jobs is in doing all we can to encourage new business start-ups and to create an environment that allows the next generation of entrepreneurs to flourish. I remember a Cornish farmer once telling me, “you don’t have to be clever to be smart” and he was right. Some of the most successful entrepreneurs in Britain did not have a university education and did not enter a profession but they had an idea and a natural talent for making things happen coupled with the fortitude to keep going in the face of the inevitable setbacks.

It is why earlier this year I encouraged a number of schools from our area to enter a national competition to come up with a new business idea and design a new product and I was delighted that Hayle Community School took up the challenge. Last time I visited Hayle School I was struck by the emphasis that they placed on developing young enterprise which is something they have made a priority. Last year I tried some of the excellent “Currantly Cornish” ice cream recipe which was developed by students and was on sale in the town.

We had some excellent product ideas developed by Year 10 pupils ranging from sunglasses that change colour in the heat to novel camera bags, swimming goggle carriers, unusual bed and chair designs, a kangaroo style shoe rack, docking stations for remote controls, solar powered dog trackers, a medical history chip and a children’s drawing table.

The entry that we chose to go through to the national competition was the idea of having wireless headphones for ipad devices designed by Charlie Martin and Millie Jenkins with the runner up being a special training football which uses smart sensors to connect to computers and monitor performance which was designed by Jacob Nicholas, Connor Smith and Tom Pascoe.

The next couple of years will see the transformation of Hayle with the regeneration work already well underway on North Quay and work expected to begin on South Quay in the New Year. There is also an advanced plan to develop the potential of the harbour for the fishing industry on East Quay. I have consistently argued in favour of the scheme to regenerate Hayle because the town has been waiting for change all my lifetime.

There will be many new business opportunities created by these changes and some new businesses are already starting to open. I hope that by the time the current Year 10 students at Hayle leave school in a few years time, some of them will choose to develop their enterprising talents further and become their own boss.

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.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cutting the EU budget

This week saw the thorny issue of EU spending stumble back on the agenda with the moment for negotiations over the future EU budget fast approaching but with EU member states getting further away from any kind of consensus.

It really shouldn’t be that difficult. Every EU country is having to make swingeing cuts to public spending in order to deal with the mountain of debt accumulated over the last decade and to tackle the economic crisis caused by the crackpot idea that is known as the euro. You might think that, since its own policies have contributed to the mess that Europe is in, the EU might have a bit of humility, that they might empathise with the pain being experienced by Europe’s people and might therefore recognise that they, too, must pull in their belt and show some restraint.

Not a bit if it. Instead, the European Commission opened discussions by suggesting a staggering seven percent increase in their budget. Two years ago, David Cameron put his foot down and led a group of EU leaders calling for a real terms cut or, at the very least, a freeze in the EU budget. He managed to get the support of the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, the President of France and the Prime Ministers of Finland and Holland. Later, other countries joined in this principled position including Sweden.

However, then the horse trading started and some of the countries who initially supported Britain in controlling the EU budget started to go wobbly. The worst offender was Angela Merkel who has now abandoned her stance and has decided that caving in on the EU budget might gain her leverage over some of the poorer member states in other areas of policy. Such counterproductive horse trading is a major weakness in the EU which means it frequently makes serious mistakes because shady, backroom deals eclipse any intelligent or reasoned debate. That is why eventually, if it is to survive, the EU must be streamlined and modernised with many of its powers stripped away and returned to national governments.

The good news is that, in the short term, Britain has a veto over the EU budget and can put its foot down and block any new inflation busting increases. If this happens there is then automatically a real terms freeze in the budget followed by a painstaking process of agreeing individual items in the budget one line at a time. Once again, it looks like it will fall to Britain to show leadership and risk unpopularity with other leaders by knocking heads together in order to sort things out and deliver what is right for the people of both Britain and Europe. David Cameron has done it before and he should do it again.

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.