Thursday, 13 December 2012

Autumn Statement

Nine months ago Cornwall’s MPs were thrown into combat with the government after the Budget bowled a few unexpected problems our way, such as VAT on pasties. It took a couple of months to sort things out but we got there. So I was a little bit apprehensive last week as George Osborne got to his feet to deliver his Autumn Statement which is a sort of mini-budget. However, despite having very limited room for manoeuvre, this year’s statement contained some very good news for Cornwall.

Firstly, the planned 3p rise in fuel duty will not just be postponed as before but scrapped altogether. This is vitally important for a county like Cornwall because we are at the end of the line and our businesses have to transport their goods hundreds of miles to market which is a major cost and because many people who work cannot rely on public transport and have no option but to use their car. Filling up the car with petrol is a major cost for many families and I have always argued that fuel tax is a regressive tax that hits remote areas unfairly and we should be aiming to get these costs down.

Secondly, it was decided to accelerate the increase in the new tax threshold meaning that those struggling to get by on low incomes will be taken out of tax altogether. Again, this is really important to places like Cornwall where thousands of families work hard but have to rely on low incomes. It can’t be right to tax people on one hand only to have to give them some money back in benefits on the other. It would be better by far if you didn’t take their money in the first place so that there was more of an incentive to take a job.

There was also some good news when it comes to investment in roads and infrastructure to try to get the economy moving. The lesson from past recessions is that governments should try, as far as is possible, to maintain investment in infrastructure because, it improves future competitiveness and provides immediate short term work in construction. Here in Cornwall, the government has finally come up with the money to start work on dualling the A30 at Temple which will remove a longstanding bottle neck which causes havoc in the summer months. This has been talked about for years and it is a real vote of confidence in Cornwall that this work will now begin.

Finally, there was some good news for businesses as the government increased “capital allowances” substantially to encourage businesses to invest any profits they make into new machinery which will increase their productivity as well as giving a much needed boost to manufacturing.

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.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Europe

There is now a lot riding on David Cameron’s much trailed “big speech” on the future of Britain’s relationship with the EU. It has been talked about since last summer. Number 10 would certainly not have wanted to have so much advance speculation about what it might say and, as expectation in the speech grows, they have been minded to delay the day, presumably fearful that they might disappoint. So, instead, speculation has become like a growing monster.

The first thing David Cameron needs to do is to untangle what negotiations can take place right now and in this parliament from those which must be postponed for another day and until after the next election. There are two major areas where the current coalition government (Lib Dems and all) will necessarily end up in a renegotiation with the EU. Firstly, the brinkmanship over delivering a real terms freeze to the EU budget which has been led by Britain is likely to continue well into the New Year. David Cameron must stand firm on this. We should not be making cuts in Britain only to give inflation busting budget increases to inept officials in the EU.

Secondly, the British government has already made clear that it will exercise a right it has under the Lisbon Treaty to opt back out of 130 EU directives that Gordon Brown signed up to relating to justice and home affairs but will then seek to pick and choose those it wants to cooperate with and those which will be vetoed for good. There is nervousness among some Liberal Democrats about some of these renegotiations but the Prime Minister must stand his ground and exercise the treaty right that Britain has to sort out the mess in some of these laws.

Then there is the longer term picture. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are, emotionally, poles apart when it comes to views about the EU and it is no good ignoring that central coalition dynamic. Many Conservatives, myself included, want to see a more fundamental renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU with powers returned in many areas while we remain an enthusiastic and committed member of the single market. But, because of the dynamics of the coalition, this more fundamental renegotiation must be postponed. Ironically, the intervention of UKIP at the last General Election might have denied the country a Conservative majority thus undermining the cause they claim to believe in.

So David Cameron must start to set out what would be in the next Conservative manifesto. It is no longer enough to use slogans like “in Europe, not run by Europe.” We need to flesh out in more detail what a future renegotiation would look like and seek a mandate for that position at the next election. This could include taking powers back in areas such as social and employment policy, a looser relationship with the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy and the return of responsibility for regional policy which could mean we have more to spend on regeneration in Cornwall. Such a new deal could also involve clipping the wings of wayward EU institutions like the European Court of Justice which currently has too much power and needs taking down a peg or two.

Some say such a fundamental renegotiation is impossible but they are wrong. There are growing calls within Germany and the EU Commission for a new Treaty in Europe which would totally re-order the European Union and accelerate political union among some members. No longer would this be something done by stealth, but political integration would become an overt aim in order to try to save the euro. But countries like Germany fully understand that it is impossible for Britain and possibly many others to follow, so there would be a fork in the road and Britain would need to be given new powers back in return for agreeing to such a new order. If Angela Merkel is re-elected at the end of next year, this agenda will rise rapidly during 2014 and Britain must get into in the driver’s seat now.

Any discussion about the EU always ends up slipping into the rut of whether or not we need a referendum. My own view is that this is a distraction which undermines the central aim of renegotiation but, at the end of the process, there is a case for having such a referendum on the outcome to draw a line under things and move on.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Food Bank

As we begin the run up to Christmas, there are a number of vital charities in the Camborne, Redruth and Hayle area which are getting to work to help those less fortunate. Last weekend I visited a number of Christmas Fayres which aimed to raise much needed funds to support their good work, including Searchlight, the excellent youth group based in Redruth, and Camborne Church.

Visits to such groups always boosts my faith in human nature. The central dynamic is nearly always the same. It usually starts with the energy, determination and leadership of just one person. The energy and commitment they show becomes infectious and spreads so suddenly there is a small team of people who can make things happen. When others in the community see the good work being delivered, many others become inspired to get involved and the whole enterprise can snowball.

On Saturday I also visited the Food Bank project based at the Centenary Chapel on Wesley Street which has now been running for a number of years and is starting its preparations for Christmas. The driving force behind the project is Don Gardner but he has incredible support from volunteers both connected with churches in Camborne and outside. I was really heartened to hear of the excellent contribution being made by the Sixth Form at Camborne Science and International Academy. Students there have made it their charity this year and have already run projects to raise some £100 which they then used to buy fresh supplies for the Food Bank.

The concept is simple: members of the public and sometimes local businesses donate food to the charity and local agencies can issue vouchers for food to those families facing genuine financial crisis. As well as helping those facing problems all year round, they make a special effort at Christmas. Last year they put together 190 Christmas lunch hampers for families in the area and this year they are set to deliver 200. They have also branched out to take over the running of the Toy Library from the Council where families can choose from a selection of hundreds of toys which can be hired at a cost of just 20 pence per week. When thieves recently stole a cash box from the charity, Don Gardner was overwhelmed by the generosity of local people with many coming forward to contribute financially or to give toys that their own children had outgrown so that another child could benefit from them. This year they also plan to run another project to buy Christmas presents for children so that there are no “no-go areas” for Father Christmas this year.

If you would like to volunteer time or money to help the Food Bank this Christmas or have unwanted toys, bikes etc you could donate, please email donovan.gardner@sky.com or telephone 01209 714592.